In her 99U talk, artificial and augmented intelligence leader Dr. Vivienne Ming, explores the often complicated relationship between creatives and technology. AI, she argues, can match a lot of human capabilities, but not vision and purpose. It can, however, make your vision and your purpose a reality.
About Dr. Vivienne Ming: Dr. Vivienne Ming is a theoretical neuroscientist, entrepreneur, and author frequently featured for her research and inventions in publications including The Financial Times, The Atlantic, Quartz, and The New York Times.
Vivienne co-founded Socos Labs, an independent think tank exploring the future of human potential. Socos, her fifth company, combines her varied work with that of other creative experts to expand their impact on global policy issues, both inside companies and throughout communities.
Previously, Vivienne was a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience, pursuing research in cognitive neuroprosthetics. In her free time, Vivienne has invented AI systems to help treat her diabetic son, predict manic episodes in bipolar sufferers weeks in advance, and reunite orphan refugees with extended family members. She sits on boards of numerous companies and nonprofit organizations including StartOut, The Palm Center, Cornerstone Capital, Platypus Institute, Shiftgig, Zoic Capital, and SmartStones.
Vivienne also speaks frequently on her AI-driven research into inclusion and gender in business. For relaxation, she is a wife and mother of two.
Probably a very reasonable thing for you to be thinking right now is “Who the fuck is this person?” I am a definite weirdo. I have the coolest job in the entire world. I’m a professional mad scientist. I started my career as a theoretical neuroscientist, so if you’ve never heard of that before, just substitute the word lazy for theoretical, and you have the vision. We build machine learning to study the brain. We study the brain to come up with better machine learning. It’s a real blast. I love being a scientist. If everything in my life fell apart, and I had to go back up onto campus and run my lab again, I would happily do it in a second.
But about 12 years ago, I live the Bay Area, I got the entrepreneurial bug, and I started a series of companies, AI in education and AI in the workplace. I was the chief scientist of one of the very first companies using AI for hiring, which you may appreciate at this point is a pretty fraught industry. I got to explore all of these sorts of things, and across all of them, what really bound it together was: what makes an amazing life? What does it take to actually build an amazing person? Not just for the most elite performers. Not just for a bunch of billionaires in Silicon Valley or elite performers in sports or on Wall Street or whatever it might be. But, if you were talking about eight billion people, what would studying the brain and work and education and creativity tell you?
So, in 20 minutes, somehow, I’m supposed to convey not only what it is that makes an amazing life, but the role that creativity plays in it and then because of the nature of this conference, the role that AI and machine learning is going to play, good and bad. I had some slides. I had a talk. But it turns out what I’ve discovered over the last several years is I really love just coming out and talking. It was actually fascinating seeing the slides, the survey results, where are people’s passions? It’s interesting to see AI and machine learning on there at the top. Believe me, I spend my time doing it. I believe in its power, but the earlier statement that it in and of itself is not creative is 100% true. AlphaGo can beat the best Go players in the world, and it knows nothing about Go whatsoever.
On the other hand, for that one person in the audience that was all in for blockchain, oh my goodness, I’ve never seen a technology more in need of an actual problem to solve. Turns out it’s a great way to scam people out of their money though. I get to do all of this cool stuff, and then I get to get on stage and talk about it. What do I do now? We run this incubator where a bunch of mad scientists get together, and we take problems, any kind of problem involving people, and we solve it for free.
My life’s been good to me. I get to lead an amazing life, and the idea that I could give that to someone else, someone that has manic depression. We built the first ever AI that could predict a manic episode, just using people’s phones. When my son was diagnosed with Type I diabetes, I got to hack all of the devices attached to his body. Turns out I broke several federal US laws, and build the first ever AI to treat diabetes. Right now, we’re developing a system called software-based gauge tracking, so we can watch where people are looking on a screen. It can just run in the background, and it never needs to share data off the device. Nothing goes to my server or anyone else’s. We’re developing it to track the progression of Parkinson’s, but we’re also looking at it for when a little kid is watching a video, so we can actually bring the parent in afterwards and say, “Hey, your kid was really interested in this relationship between Bert and Ernie, and we might need a conversation about what it means for two men to really care for each other.”
It doesn’t stop there. The government of Singapore came to me and said, “Wow, we wanna be a world center for AI research. What does it take to actually attract the kind of people that will drive that in Singapore?” The secretary general’s office of the UN had a somewhat similar question within their purview, and it’s about being creative. All these transformations are about being creative, and we get the chance to do this. People walk in and ask for help, and I’m in this amazing position where not only do we get to help, but we literally get to give it away for free. What has all my research shown me about creativity?
Over the weekend I was up at MIT. There was a conference on neuro technologies. We brought a whole bunch of scientists together from Stanford and MIT and Harvard and beyond and a bunch of billionaires. So Eric Schmidt was there and Reid Hoffman and people looking to put money in this space. If you’re wondering, the kind of entrepreneurs that gave you Facebook and Google now see your brain as green field for their next companies, which, genuinely, do you want Facebook in your brain is a reasonable question to ask, but when you look at the actual science of what we get to do, and I have a bunch of startups in this space also, it’s actually fascinating. One of the technologies one of my startups has developed is called transcranial alternating current stimulation along the midline theta. Whatever. You slap a thing to your head, and you are instantly smarter. Have you ever heard the old, I don’t know, some of the crowd, I see people of my generation and some of you, fuck you for being young. You slap this little patch on your head. You know the old Simon game? It was lights and colors and a pattern. You had to remember which sequence they were in, and as you get up to six, seven-length sequences, for most people, it’s hard remembering what the next one is. You put the little patch on, and instead of doing five, six, seven-length sequences, you can do seven, eight, nine-length sequences. That may not sound trivial, but in my work, where I get to literally track the life outcomes of a hundred million people, it turns out that little change means you earn $30,000 more across your lifetime. You live five to eight years longer, and you earn more money, and you go further in your education. These are the sorts of things people would want in their life. This is what I would love to give someone. Now, of course, this sort of thing, eventually it’d be commercialized for everyone.
My interest is in kids with traumatic brain injury. One of the most common symptoms of traumatic brain injury, whether you’re a soldier on the battlefield or a little kid that had a bicycle accident or was abused, or you may not know this, just grew up in a high-stress household, millions of kids every year, what they were born with is taken away causively at a molecular level by stress. What if you could give that back to them? You may not think of the kind of work that I do as creative work, but it is. Science and engineering is fundamentally creative. It just so happens I also get to get up on stage and sort of be a professional pompous jackass as well, which is also a creative experience. Now I get to write books, and, it turns out, screenplays.
I was in New York recently, and this person walked up to me afterwards and said, “You’re a really fucking weird person. Would you be interested in working on a TV show?” And I said, “Yeah, yes, this would be awesome.” I’m a huge, oh my god, I watched so many hours of Gilligan’s Island when I was little. I’m happy to admit it. If you grew up in the ’70s, it wasn’t like the Breaking Bad era. You mainlined terrible, terrible television, and it defined who you were. What’s amazing is you can come out with so much more than that.
I’m up at MIT, and I’m watching this stuff, and it turns out not only can I slap this thing on you and increase your working memory span, I can do a different kind of stimulation and increase your creativity. I can slap a little patch on you and electrically stimulate parts of your prefrontal cortex and, let’s put it this way, there’s a famous little psychological experiment where I give you a little box full of LEGOs, and put them together, and they say, “Come up with as many different creations out of these LEGOs as you can in the next five minutes, go.” This is how psychologists tend to think about things like creativity. At the very least, it gives us some sense. In the moment, how many different ideas can you come up with? Pitching in a writer’s room, how many dumb jokes right now, or good jokes ideally, that you can come up in the moment, and you can actually put this patch on and increase the number about 10%, and this is just external.
My actual passion, what I went to grad school for, I wanna build cyborgs. I want to literally get inside your head, jam things in there, and make you smarter. Unambiguously, this is achievable for those of you that survive the surgery. I will take volunteers afterwards. I’m sure this will be great for your career or for whoever inherits the insurance payout. Here’s the thing, halfway in, I’m actually getting to something, is: I slap this thing on you, and it makes you come up with more ideas. You are in some basic sense more creative. That doesn’t do anything if you don’t have the courage to tell people what you believe.
I was giving a talk recently to a room about a little less smaller than this, but a similar crowd, and they were chief innovation officers and chief technology officers. Near the end of this talk, these are big industry. These are people that notoriously spend trillions of dollars a year, supposedly, on innovation, and yet, do you feel like you have $1.5 trillion worth of innovation in your life? Not really for me. He said really bluntly and frankly, “I’m in this giant company. I don’t understand, how can I get my team to innovate?” I just said something in the moment, which probably came across as very harsh, and I was surprised at how well taken it was, which is, “If the cost of losing your job is greater than doing what’s right, then you can’t innovate.” If you can’t walk away from whatever you’re doing, then you can’t truly do something worthwhile. If you can’t tell someone a truth because you’re afraid that they won’t hire you again on freelance or they won’t keep you on staff, or the audience won’t get your sense of humor, you’re not being creative. Creativity is not simply exploring the unknown. It is that. And let me tell you, as much as I love building AI and machine learning systems, that’s what they can’t do. They cannot explore the unknown. Maybe someday, some jerk like me is going to build that, and we even have ideas about where we’re going in this space. But right now, artificial intelligence is fundamentally a tool, and you’re the artists.
It is a huge mistake to think that AI will solve our problems for us. However, taking creative people that know how to explore the unknown and have the courage to do what they think is right, that’s fundamentally what creativity is about. If you can’t say what you believe, if you can’t be true to yourself, you can’t be a CIO. I don’t believe you can be an artist. You can’t be a scientist. You sure as hell can’t be the attorney general of the United States. If your job is worth more to you than your responsibility to the country, then we’re all fucked.
Where does that leave us? I get this thing where I get to study people, and I get to study machines at the same time. Of course, what I want to do in the ideal is put them together. That may sound like the board to you, but actually, what we can augment in people is anything. The whole point is what about you could we lift up? It can be your creativity. I love the idea of a cyborg who actually, we’re augmenting their emotions, and they’re able to introspect better and understand themselves, whatever it might be, but I will say this. When we say creativity is future proof, it’s true. The fundamentals of creativity, as far as we can see, and boy, that future is very murky, but as far as we can see, that creativity is future proof but not if you can’t be honest, not if you can’t share yourself in your work.
This probably doesn’t sound like the sort of thing you normally hear out of a scientist, but let me put it this way, jerks like me build AIs to take people’s jobs. Now, that doesn’t mean C-3PO shows up and taps someone on the shoulder and says that “You’re out, you’re fired, that’s my seat now.” But what it does mean is something very different than is covered in a lot of the press. A lot of the press is about how will warehouse workers survive automation? What about taxi drivers? I tried not to think about this too much, but at one point, Uber reached out to me and said, “Would you be interested in being chief scientist at Uber?” I said, “Hell no, what?” You couldn’t pay me $10 million to be alone in a room with Travis Kalanick. The thing is, now they’re gonna IPO this year, and that statement will become true. I will try not to obsess over that.
The truth is building robots to do those kinds of jobs is phenomenally difficult and enormously expensive, and the genuinely sad truth is that humans will just work for less. Will AI create more jobs than it destroys? Yeah, it actually will, but is this the next Industrial Revolution? No. It will create this huge mass of service industry jobs that have no agency, no meaningfulness, low wage power. And it will create all these amazing creative jobs. How do we understand that work? Think of it this way: If you were doing a job right now, creative or otherwise, as you see it, if I could hire anyone with a similar background and a similar education and plug them into that job and get the same output out, your job is not long for this world. That might sound really scary. If someone like me can build an AI to do all of that rote work, even rote creative work… I’ve been watching Tuca & Bertie recently. If you haven’t seen it on Netflix, go check it out. If you like BoJack Horseman, except you really wanted it to be about 30-year-old women with their tits flapping out enjoying the world, then go see it. It’s great. In the sense that only this woman could come up with this, and we send out all the animation to be finished overseas, boy, give it five or 10 years, and I guarantee you that you could give it a few frames, and it could reproduce all of that stuff. You can just say, “Hey, you know what? “I’ve got this scene: Bertie and Tuca are gonna be going to the hospital, and there should be some sort of alligator taxi that takes them there, and here’s the kind of color scheme I want,” and it would spit all of that out. I don’t really see that as terribly creative because there was nothing to that that actually contained anyone’s unique vision. What is left after all of that sort of stuff gets animated? If creativity is not simply the ability to draw a picture or write a story or run an experiment, if creativity is fundamentally what makes you unique, that’s an amazing story.
As scary as it might be to many, to people like you in the audience, this should be incredibly heartening because it means that the future of work is what makes you different. The thing that makes you uniquely different is your only value. When I bring someone into my lab or into one of my companies, I only have one question. I don’t care if you can program. I don’t care if you know anything about brains or artificial intelligence. I can teach you all of that. That’s all boring to me. I care that you will have had an idea that I wouldn’t have. Now, that’s something that I bet you as creatives really get, whether you’re writers or visual artists or musicians. It’s about having an idea that no one else would’ve had.
More and more, machines can turn those visions into reality. But the visions are ours. They are what make us special. What I’m worried about is that few of us have the courage to share our vision with the world. I don’t just mean you. I mean everyone. I mean eight billion people, ’cause no one’s gonna want to be on the wrong side of this massive divide between the creative economy and everything else. I fundamentally believe everybody can do it. I know sometimes that sounds controversial, but my research: hundreds of millions of people, everyone, can be amazing. I wouldn’t build what I build if I didn’t believe that. You can change a life, and you wanna know what it is, that final ingredient for creativity around exploring the unknown? It isn’t just about creating meaning. It’s that you have meaning in your life. You have a sense of purpose, something that is bigger than you, something that will take more than a lifetime to complete.
Your career is not your purpose. Your job is not your purpose. I always like to say the world gets better when old men plant trees. That’s a purpose. You will never rest under the shade of that tree. You’re doing it entirely for someone else. Here’s the most amazing thing about that: those people that plant trees, like you, these creative trees that go on to live inside someone’s mind, that change who they are, those people live longer. They earn more money. They walk faster when they’re 65 years old. They have more friends. They’re actually happier. You want an amazing life? Then give it to someone else.
Thank you very much.