It’s hard to imagine Ming as lonely. When I first met her, at a conference of chief executives held in South Carolina, she was stunning her audience with her insights on how AI and brain science can help businesses to grow. While she sounded at times like your typical Silicon Valley tech enthusiast, wildly optimistic about the potential for algorithms to make the world a better place, she also did not shrink from the darker side of innovation.
I was particularly struck by her prediction that within a generation we might see widespread early-onset dementia because the apps we use to do everything from navigate us through traffic to select a restaurant are depriving our brains of the exercise they’ve become used to over millions of years.
“There’s research, involving London cabbies, actually, that tells us that navigating through space [without the help of apps] is prophylactic against cognitive decline,” she tells me at the Connaught. “I used Google Maps to get here from my hotel. I use it to get everywhere, and I do it knowing that it’s making me better in the short term but worse in the long.”
The second reason Ming caught my attention back in South Carolina was that she was wearing a killer combo of a great black motorcycle jacket with a jewel-toned sheath dress — edgy, yet professional. So I was bowled over when she started sharing stories about the dual perspective her gender transition had given her. “I remember flying back from a talk I had given on education,” she says, “and there’s this man and I look at him and I say, ‘I think you might be sitting in my seat,’ and he gets out his ticket, and says, ‘You know, you’re right.’ Then he waits a beat and says, ‘You want to sit in my lap?’ And there was a part of me that wanted to be very non-politically correct and say, ‘I think you and I need to have a conversation about my life history and see whether you want to maintain that offer!’ ”
We both laugh, loudly. The CEOs did too.
Cognitive “de-silo-ing” is, to put it mildly, Vivienne Ming’s thing. Evan Smith grew up as the privileged son of an upper-middle-class doctor and his wife in the little valley that John Steinbeck wrote about in his short-story cycle The Pastures of Heaven. But such privilege came with the pressures of perfection; there was plenty of bourgeois entitlement in Smith’s family.
“I was supposed to win a Nobel Prize,” says Ming, deadpan, as we peruse the menu from our cushy window seats. But by high school, gender dysphoria had turned the brilliant science student into a depressive. “By the time I’m off to college,” says Ming, “I’ve got terrible insomnia, a horrible eating disorder, and it’s just really unpleasant being me. And I came from such a wonderful life, this is entirely self-inflicted.”
Smith dropped out of the University of California San Diego, and became homeless, still unaware of what was causing the distress that made him wake up each day wishing he were someone else. “I was living in my car in the rough part of Mountain View — well, actually, there really isn’t a rough part — but there’s an industrial part where you can live in your car without being rousted by the cops.”