Episode 43 Transcript

Published: Thursday April 18, 2024

The AI Revolution Through a Neurodiverse Lens | Yan Vishnepolsky

Yan Vishnepolsky is on a mission to make AI more inclusive


Alycia Anderson: Welcome to Pushing Forward with Alycia, a podcast that gives disability a voice. Each week we will explore topics like confidence, ambition, resilience and finding success against all odds. We are creating a collective community that believes that all things are possible for all people.

Open hearts. Clear paths. Let’s go.

Welcome back to Pushing Forward with Alycia. I’m Alycia. We have an incredible guest today. Yan Vishnepolsky is an entrepreneur, leader in user experience his passion lies in artificial intelligence. He’s got a podcast called Human-Centered AI, and he was also diagnosed as neurodiverse at an early age. Yan, welcome to Pushing Forward with Alycia.

Yan Vishnepolsky: Thank you so much. It’s just so much a pleasure to be here to be able to talk to your audience about neurodiversity in my career, and I’m very excited about this episode.

Alycia Anderson: I’m so excited. You are one of the most timely episodes and conversations we are having.

Yan Vishnepolsky: [laughter]

Alycia Anderson: I mean in the workplace specifically, all we’re hearing about is AI. There’s a ton of advocacy going on in education around neurodiversity, so I’m beyond thrilled to have you and your brilliant mind on this podcast.

What is neurodiversity to you?

Yan Vishnepolsky: So in my case… um… neurodiversity comes in many forms. That’s why they call it neurodiversity. But in my case, I was diagnosed with ADHD and autism, and they call it a spectrum because they’re … depending on where you fall on the spectrum, you can have it more expressive or less expressive.

There’s also these terms like high functioning, which means like you, you basically have more masking what we call masking. Other communities call it code switching, but it kind of gives you an idea of what it requires to be neurodiverse to function in society and do things like have a job.

Alycia Anderson: I’ve been listening to a ton of your interviews, and there was one interview specifically where you’re talking about how an 8-hour day feels like this exhausting thing when you’re done with it because of trying to keep up with this like typical world. Everybody needs to fit in this box and that…

Yan Vishnepolsky: Yup.

Alycia Anderson: … it takes a lot of work to adapt to that.

Yan Vishnepolsky: Yes. So, basically what happens, at least to people who are ADHD on the spectrum… this it seems to be like an area of intersection between us is that we have like these periods of hyperfocus, and what that means is that we not only focus like people who are not neurodiverse, your typical people do, but we take it to the next level basically to the point where like we really throw ourselves into a topic. And to some people it might come off as almost obsessive, but that also is like what makes it… gives it our superpower, so to speak, because we get really into a topic.

Alright, that’s how I became an expert on AI, because like I just started to totally geek out on it. And, the same thing happens on a day-to-day basis with my work day as you mentioned, right, when in the course of like an 8-hour day, I just like really throw myself into the work to the point where like I almost lose my sense of self. Like it’s almost like a form of meditation. From a yogic perspective, the flip side of course with the ADHD is if I get bored by a topic and it’s not really entertaining or I’m not that excited about it then it’s really hard for me to focus and to continue with that, which is another reason why I strongly recommend to listeners who nearodiverse that you pick something that you love rather than doing some something that you find boring, because that… then you can really lean into your power.

Alycia Anderson: I love you, highlighting what the superpower is, what the gifts come from having diversity within your intersectionality. And you mentioned intersectionality and the layers of identity that each of us are kind of like claiming.

From your personal perspective, like, where do you identify with all of that conversation?

Yan Vishnepolsky: I get very inspired by the LGBTQ community, because it’s also invisible in our case for neurodiversity, and they kind of have blazed a path forward for us and showed us how to do it when you have something that makes you an other. And, people can’t really immediately see it on your face.

And so, I feel like working with other people who are labeled as disabled, like or other marginalized communities we can intersect together… and grow together …and like united we have a lot more of a chance to succeed. And that is what… how I feel about neurodiversity, too.

In the case of neurodiverse, it has its strengths, and it has its weaknesses.

I feel like for work it’s like mostly positive, like because I could just really throw myself into my work and that’s very exciting for me. And the personal life it has its challenges, which is why a lot of people who are neurodiverse, they have, we have therapists.

But, like the… what’s great about the workplace is that it has… it’s rules based, and so like looking for people on the autistic spectrum, like in my case, once you learn those rules… and we’re very good with like with like learning the rules, and like it’s sticking to them. We like those kinds of rules. Like it becomes really easy to understand the algorithm to work and being successful at it. And so, I feel like the answer is nuanced and complex, and it depends on what that word means to you.

Alycia Anderson: What you said was. Leaning into neurodiversity in the workplace is mostly positive, and I think that statement alone needs to be loud everywhere, because…

Yan Vishnepolsky: Yeah.

Alycia Anderson: …differences often have a negative connotation to them at times, and that that was a beautiful, powerful statement.

It is mostly positive in the workplace.

That that would give so much hope to parents and you know…

Yan Vishnepolsky: Yeah.

Alycia Anderson: …navigating this, that are maybe not as far along as you are.

Yan Vishnepolsky: In this world, if you try to make yourself like everybody else, then you’re… then you’re not… then you’re just going to be drowned out by everybody else. If you try to find a way that you’re different…, that you’re special… than that’s how you stand out from the crowd. That’s how you achieve success… like, by being extraordinary.

Alycia Anderson: You seem very aware of your gifts and what you can leverage in your career to advance it and what your expertise are and where your power lies.

Can we look back for a minute?

Yan Vishnepolsky: Sure.

Alycia Anderson: How does that look from a little… little guy, a little Yan, to powerful Yan, like creating all these awesome tools and user experiences?

Yan Vishnepolsky: For a long time, I really wanted to be like everybody else. I felt like the problem was that I didn’t fit in, and like, I was also really privileged in many ways. And in ways that are unavailable to people these days. I being a white male from an affluent family, was able to have resources like being able to go to a special program called BOSi special education where if you had a high IQ and you performed well in school, you were placed in a special program for neurodiverse kids.

A small classroom. I think that the most there was just like 10 people and we were given personalized teaching, and then in other cases like we took the classes with the rest of the kids. And, I took this program between the ages… between the age of 10 and 18.

And I, credit this program to a large part of my success because one of the things that they taught me in this program was the need to work on myself, and to keep improving on the areas that that are weaknesses in order for me to integrate well into society.

And so, that path of like continual self-improvement is what led me into UX in the first place.

I’m in the area of UX called user research. I do qualitative and quantitative user research which means that I look at the analytics. I look at the numbers. On the quantitative side, but I also have to deal with people on the qualitative side.

So, the analytical side of course, being on the autistic spectrum by putting together numbers of patterns, that’s really good. And I was good at that even as a kid. That was something that I realized early on. I’m going to good at like my career should be about that, and so did my parents. They’re very supportive and they encourage me to lean into tech, but the qualitative side was always something that I felt like from an early age that I like getting people understanding people like, that’s something that I need to work on being on the autistic spectrum.

And so, that’s why I… I’m really into the qualitative piece of the user research, because I have to relate to my users. I have to understand what they’re going through. I have to understand what we call the mental model or how they approach things.

And so that like, I feel like being a user researcher is a continuation of my journey. That’s just my solution.

I don’t say that all of neurodiverse people should become user researchers. We just try to find what you’re passionate about and what makes you succeed, and rather than focusing on the negatives leading to the positives, regardless of whether you’re a kid that’s been diagnosed or whether you’re an adult, you are exceptional and make that work for you.

Alycia Anderson: I heard you just say that from a little guy, it was important for you to understand not only yourself but also the people around you, which we’re going to look different, and in becoming an expert in doing that, that is translated into a user experience and your AI work that is building…

Yan Vishnepolsky: Yeah.

Alycia Anderson: …greater understanding of the… of an experience…

Yan Vishnepolsky: Yeah.

Alycia Anderson: …a human experience with technology. That is so cool. And, lean into what is exceptional to fit in.

Yan Vishnepolsky: Yeah.

Alycia Anderson: That is what you had to do to find a place in our society, which is so powerful and actually scary, as a human being to go OK, I’m going to lean into that thing. Maybe? While you’re getting used to it until you’re brave and bold enough.

Yan Vishnepolsky: Hmmm.

Alycia Anderson: And then you do it, and you’re like, well, look at… look at what you’re doing.

Yan Vishnepolsky: It’s a process. It’s not like you’re all of a sudden you’re there. I had.. Like I said, like I’m very privileged, and so I’ve had years and years and years to work on this. Others, I’ve met others who are neurodiverse in my field. There are many of us, and they also it took them many years to figure this out.

Like it’s not unusual to take, like, an entire decade to sometimes figure this out or more. Like this is… life is a journey, and it’s not like you just snap your fingers and you have a solution.

You have to think about it. You have to lead into it. There’s other things that like apply to neurotypical people that apply to us, like the concepts behind personal branding and personal marketing.

Like all these sorts of of ideas apply to us too, and we just have to figure out how to make them more for us.

Alycia Anderson: I want to say the stat that you said before we started, which was 50% of employees that are in tech, are neurodiverse in some spectrum.

Yan Vishnepolsky: Yes.

Alycia Anderson: Which I think is a very important number for the companies that follow this podcast to…

Yan Vishnepolsky: Yes.

Alycia Anderson: … understand that the non-apparent diversities that are going on within the organizations are much broader, bigger, larger, prevalent…

Yan Vishnepolsky: Yes.

Alycia Anderson: …than what we’re giving credit for.

Yan Vishnepolsky: And and and and and. This is actually like, I bring this number up to be encouraging to people who are neurodiverse.

For a long time, I lived in fear, honestly, that I was afraid that if I went in that public with being neurodiverse, that I would lose my career. Because so much of my career is based off of knowledge and what I know and how I could share and relate to others.

And I was worried that like the moment that people think that I’m neurodiverse and that they’re going to think that I’m an other. And, I’m not going to be able to share this information.

They’re going to rely on like what the Internet says about my diagnosis rather and just label me accordingly, intentionally or other… long function or otherwise, and and that would be the end of my career.

And so, that’s how I approached teen years, but then when I went public with it, first of all, I met a whole bunch of other people who are neurodiverse and they told me that, like #1, it’s been… it was very good for me to go public for them. But also like I learned that this community, is… our neurodiverse folks, we all benefit from supporting each other.

And so, I recommend… not like, not that everyone goes public. If you’re not comfortable with it, but at least don’t live in fear because this is what makes you special.

Alycia Anderson: You’re listening to Pushing Forward with Alycia, and we will be right back.


Alycia Anderson: Welcome back to Pushing Forward with Alycia. I’m Alycia. We have Yan Vishnepolsky, his passion lies in artificial intelligence, and he was also diagnosed as neurodiverse at an early age.

Yan may we also put some responsibility on these companies to start creating environments where it feels safe, like psychological..

Yan Vishnepolsky: Yes!

Alycia Anderson: They’re like, “Oh, hey, this is me. Yeah, I’m in a wheelchair, but I still can do this.”

Yan Vishnepolsky: 100%.

Alycia Anderson: And so, the conversations are more comfortable and we don’t feel like we need to hide ourselves because of stigma…, untruths and false assumptions, and all of those things that, whatever your path is, it being different that we live under especially when we’re trying to grow our careers, you know that.

So, talk about being exhausted after 8-hours, you know like…!?!

Yan Vishnepolsky: Oh, so you brought up a good point. So, like everything in in this world…, second law of thermodynamics, you can’t create energy from nothing.

Like, the hyper focus side comes out in positive ways at work, but on the personal side like after a hard days of worth of work. Work it definitely… like, a full 8-hour day where I’m like completely hyper focused for 8-hours like I’m exhausted afterwards.

Like I’m… like completely dead, and for two hours or more like… I just cannot function. I cannot do things and stuff like that. Like… is like the downside.

So, like people in the course of our work, like, you know, typical people will see it as mostly as a positive, but we’re and we’re entire human beings and not just machines. And so like… we… it, it comes out on the other side when it comes to personal lives and so forth.

And so, just trying to maintaining that work life balance is my suggestion to companies that care about this topic.

Alycia Anderson: And would that also be another like… let’s put it back on the companies having flexible work schedules.

Yan Vishnepolsky: Yes.

Alycia Anderson: Creating environments where people start to raise their hand and say this is the adaption I need. This is the tool that I need. This is what will help me not have to mask so hard or overcompensate because you’re not creating a place that I can raise my hand. Or say, you know… I just need a little bit of a break here because I… I’m… my brain is working hard right now.

Yan Vishnepolsky: Yes, all that is amazing and 100% agree with everything that you just said.

That was very well said. I would also add. That it’s not just a tool, like a… it’s also like a practice.

Remote work is something that has come up again and again and again among every like about all my friends from neurodiverse. Maybe not everyone who’s neurodiverse feels this way, but at least everyone that I’ve talked to who’s neurodiverse feels that remote work has been amazing for them.

Like, it’s just been really positive change in their life in terms of all of the things that you mentioned. And so, I really advocate for remote work too. In addition to all the things.

Alycia Anderson: I found fascinating that you use AI not only like in your work development and expertise, but you also use it as kind of a tool to adapt to the world in the workplace.

Like if you are having to go into a meeting, and you are needing to have a task and you can kind of like engage with AI and understand like more of a neurotypical response.

Yan Vishnepolsky: One of the things about being neurodiverse is that you… we tend to care about a topic that we go all in on it.

And so, my area that I went all in on was being it was AI… I’ve always been like a sci-fi geek and so when AI came around, I was like, oh, ChatGPT is bringing sci-fi to life,

Alycia Anderson: [laughter]

Yan Vishnepolsky: And so, I really started to explore for that reason, but then I realized like it… it’s actually insanely helpful for me as a neurodiverse person because ChatGPT has been basically a programmed on an intersection of everybody. It’s a statistical approach that, like, outputs words based off of like what the average response would be.

And so what… what is the average response, it’s nothing but being neurotypical response. And like, if I want to anticipate what a neurotypical person would say or how they would react or how should I approach the topic with a neurotypical person that I’m trying to convince them of something… like that’s very common in my line of work to try to sell people on a topic.

It helps me anticipate what someone else might say, and it’s… it has been scarily accurate and good at that. That is an accessibility tool. I feel like AI is really great stuff.

Alycia Anderson: Speaking of AI, I want to hear about your podcast.

Your podcast is called Human-Centered AI. It’s very good. I’ve listened to several episodes.

Yan Vishnepolsky: Thank you.

Alycia Anderson: What is your why for doing this?

Yan Vishnepolsky: OK, so… So, right now AI is a hot topic. It’s viral, it’s everywhere. People are talking about it, but it’s also really new, and so that means that there’s a lot of things that can be learned.

My parents are a huge inspiration to me, and why I went into tech.

My mom and my dad, they were part of a hundred-person team. On IBMs that wrote TCP/IP which is basically the connective structure of the Internet, and that set a really high bar for me because I was like, Oh… OK.

One, like my parents did that like, how do I even come close to achieving something like that? And then, AI came out and I was like, OK, so now everyone’s on equal footing. If I’m ever going to try to best my parents achievement, then I… this is this is my moment.

Alycia Anderson: [laughter]

Yan Vishnepolsky: And so, I really leaned into AI and I tried to. .. tried to come discover something new or like at least come up with some new thoughts.

And that’s the wonderful thing about new technologies and moments like this, because I’m sure that this is… history repeats and this moment will come again, like, so there will be something else, some new technology, some other advancement in the future. And when that moment comes, if you just grab it. And try to get ahead of it.

You have an opportunity to be a leader and so that’s why I started this podcast, to talk to other people who feel the same way that I do and see how they’re exploring AI and how they’re using it for their work.

And to my great surprise. It turned out to be a fairly popular podcast, at least in the UX community, and so I’m continuing with it and actually part of that is I have a wonderful team that works with me.

It’s not just me, and between all of us, the podcast makes it happen, and I’ve met many cool people as a result of this podcast; and I feel like doing this was the right decision.

Alycia Anderson: I love it. I’m getting the same thing from my podcast.

My favorite thing is the cool people that… I mean like you today.

Yan Vishnepolsky: Yes.

Alycia Anderson: I’m looking at the title of your podcast and I’m seeing what I love about it personally is cause I’ve like really human centered is the human centered part. Why?

Yan Vishnepolsky: Yes.

Alycia Anderson: Why human centered plus AI like?

Yan Vishnepolsky: Yes. So, I feel like the AI, the word itself, in the word itself, it’s the AI means artificial intelligence, it’s artificial. And so like we, unless we have to get it to work with people, right, like if we want to make it usable. Like if it’s so artificial. Then how? How are people? How are ordinary people going to use it?

And so how do we do that? By making it more human centered. And there… in the area that I’m in, in my career anyway besides like AI, this is what I’ve been doing the last 15 years is human. It’s called human centered design or user experience design.

And so, that’s how the topic came about, was like how do we take this AI and connect it with user experience concepts to make it more relatable to people and not so artificial.

And so, the tag line to my podcast is “human intelligence artificial support”, because like another thing that I’m worried about… concerned about… is like AI automating people out of their jobs and people losing their livelihoods, and by keeping it ethical and human centered, then we limit the negative effects on jobs.

Alycia Anderson: And I think that is some of the most important advocacy work that you could do.

When we wrap up this show, it’s called Pushing Forward with Alycia.

I always ask my guests if they can, and I kind of sneak attack and surprise. Do you have a little gift that you could give away to our…

Yan Vishnepolsky: Yes.

Alycia Anderson: … audience today?

Yan Vishnepolsky: Yeah so, I kind of brought this up earlier, but lean into what makes you exceptional. What makes you different.

If you.. if you think that some… you have a particular strength than use that, and don’t worry about that, all the things that make you different in in ways that like make you stand out from the other crowd because those are actually the good things.

Those are what makes you, you and those will make you strong.

Alycia Anderson: I’m into that 100%. Thank you for your time, Yan, and thank you to the pushing forward with Alycia community for joining us for this beautiful conversation today. We will see you next time, this has been Pushing Forward with Alycia, and that is literally how we roll on this podcast.