Vivienne Ming seems to be as indefatigable as the AI robots she studies. She has more than one PhD to her name, has started six different companies, and now travels the world under the titles of (in her words) “self-appointed do-gooder,” “mad scientist,” and “professional jackass.” Her latest venture is Socos Labs, where she uses machine learning to help children cultivate resilience, empathy and other increasingly important traits. And she also has 11—that’s right—11 books in the works.
We sat down with Ming to discuss the purpose that drives her superhuman energy, what she wishes every Silicon Valley leader knew, and how AI will continue to impact creativity and work.
A: If you want to know how AI actually should be thought of: it's a tool. It's a paintbrush. It is part of a whole set of tools to creatively explore the world. Where we begin to fail is where we lose touch with that; when we think AI is intelligent like we are or will solve our problems for us. But if a genuinely creative person has a powerful tool, then they are empowered to do even more.
Google doesn't hire people because they know how to program. It hires people who know how to come up with creative
solutions to complicated problems. It just so happens many of them do it by programming. If we get too obsessed with
the tools, we will fail to realize that it's actually about the craftsmen. Stop thinking of it as artificial
intelligence and start thinking of it as augmentation.
A: The one thing I can't build an AI to do is explore the unknown. That, at least for now and the foreseeable future, is the unique domain of humans. So, what we're trying to build into the parent and into the kids, are all of the factors that make an explorer. Because, it turns out, the best way to help a kid is to help the parents develop those skills themselves. We started to think: how could we build things that could help people be better parents?
We took a hundred years of research and we said, "What do we know makes a difference in a child's life outcomes?" And then we built a little AI that tries to understand resilience, or attention, or self-assessment. Then it looks for those qualities in the kids' actual behavior. We've built these tools in a project called Muse that creates a new activity every night for a parent to spend 20 minutes with that child. But the dirty, open secret is we're actually trying to change the parent, not the kid. It's about emotional intelligence and social skills and creativity itself. AI is involved. But it's not some massive deep neural network.
Vivienne Ming travels the world under the titles of “self-appointed do-gooder,” “mad scientist". Photo by Erik R Jepsen.
Q: What exactly are you trying to shift in the parent?
A: We don't tell parents what to do. We absolutely don't tell them who their kids are. We say: "Here's who this child could be. And here's what you could do to help get them there.” An example: “Today we're going to go take a toilet apart to figure out how it works.” That was an activity I got to do with my daughter. And it was awesome. We're augmenting parenting, trying to help people be the best parents they can be.
A: It was challenging. One of the things we did was split things up clearly. There's just been a lot of mutual
support. One of us has always been the rock when the other really needed a chance to explore. Both of us understand
that it's not about being perfect; it is about being purposeful.
A: The paradox of purpose is it's about sacrifice for something bigger than you; something you will never reap the benefits from. And yet, the people who make those sacrifices—when you do the statistics on very large numbers—they live longer, they earn more, they go further in their education, and they're happier.
Vivienne Ming addresses the audience at the Adobe For All Summit 2018. Photo by Joe Buchwald.
A: We talk about what it takes to build a creative economy. What if everyone saw everyone else for their creative potential? I don't want decide who people should be. But I do want to make certain everyone doesn't just have the opportunity but the actual tools to write their own life story. I'm out to maximize human potential. I'm not just talking about the people immediately around me, I'm talking about all 8 billion people on the planet.
Q: What a vision.
A: Yeah, it's expansive and demented but the whole point is it's something that's bigger than you. There's a line that I've used in my talks: "The world gets better when old men plant trees." I like to imagine a world in which everybody's planting trees. That's not the world we have right now, so the first thing I need to do is plant some seeds in people themselves so that those might grow and they can carry it on themselves. I think that's what leaders should be: people that explain why something should happen and then spend all the rest of their time helping other people achieve it. And my point of reference is my own life.
Q: In what way?
A: I hit more than a rough patch. I certainly started off with a lovely life. My dad was a doctor. My mom was a
teacher. I was supposed to win Nobel prizes, be this exceptional athlete, be so many things. And almost immediately I
wasn't. By the time I got out of the standardized testing world and into university, I flunked out. Then I was
homeless for a couple years. I wish more leaders in Silicon Valley and around the world had to worry about where their
next meal was coming from. Because I've been there and it changes your perspective on the world.
A: Just being a creative is not a protection against a big 30 year-long trend to de-professionalize and drive labor costs down. The majority of employers and industries are going to follow that garden path toward zero labor cost. It's a bit of a bait and switch, because we have one possible world where we can augment everybody, and we have another world in which we can substitute for them. I know which one I want.
The best thing you can do as an individual is dive deep into your creative instincts. We're finally at the point where all that's left is being human. I actually find it hopeful that, in this highly technologized world, the final story is “be all the more human.”
Emily Ludolph is a director at West Wing Writers. She has published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Artsy, Airmail, Eye on Design, JSTOR Daily, Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer.