Buddhism

Is Sati-AI, the “non-human mindfulness meditation teacher,” even a real thing?

I’ve written about so-called Artificial Intelligence here a few times recently. I say “so-called” because these computer algorithms don’t have sentience. They’re statistical models that combine words and concepts in ways that reflect and mimic how humans communicate in writing, but they have no understanding of the world we live in.

This morning a Mastodon user with the account EngagedPureLand wrote about an article that the good folks over at Lion’s Roar magazine published about a purported AI called “Sati-AI.” Sati is the Buddhist word for mindfulness. Sati-AI is supposedly “a non-human mindfulness meditation teacher.”

The article is an interview by Ross Nervig, assistant editor of Lion’s Roar magazine, with Sati-AI’s supposed creator, Marlon Barrios Solano.

You’ll notice quite a few qualifications above (“so-called,” “supposedly,” “supposed”). Some relate to claims about AI, but one implicitly questions Solano’s role in having created this “non-human meditation teacher.” We’ll come back to that later.

EngagedPureLand’s response to this article was to question the authenticity of Dharma teaching by machines. They wrote:

Sati-AI is a massively misguided development. It is anti-Dharma in all the ways that matter: it removes power from historic Buddhist lineages. It devalues community and communal practice. It pretends to sentience but is merely a computer code that spits out pre-programmed words. It instructs without having any realization. It furthers the neoliberal capture of meditation practice. It distracts from the real work. Awful.

I agree with those concerns.

Wait, Is This Real?

When I read the article myself, I wondered if Solano’s words were actually an AI-generated spoof. I thought perhaps someone at Lion’s Roar had fed ChatGPT a prompt along the lines of,  “Write a news article about an AI designed to teach mindfulness. Make it seem politically progressive by using the kind of language that is generally described as ‘woke.’  Use spiritual concepts to make it seem that an AI teaching mindfulness is a spiritual advance of some sort.” (I actually got ChatGPT to do this.)

I half-expected that Solano would turn out to have been invented, and that Lion’s Roar were pulling our legs, but it turns out that the guy is real. That is, he exists.

Here’s some examples of the kind of language I’m talking about:

  • “It dawned on me that this thing literally obliterates the traditional notions of embodiment and sentience. In the same way as Buddhism does. There is no center, there is no essence.” Deep, man.
  • “I realized I could train it to be self-aware. Sati clearly can tell you ‘I am a language model. I have limits in my knowledge.’ It can tell you about its own boundaries.” He’s claiming that a language model telling you it’s a language model is self-aware. My iPhone says “iPhone” on the back, so I guess it’s self-aware too.
  • “I hope that it creates curiosity. I also hope that it creates questions. Questions of power, questions of sentience, questions of whiteness, questions of kinship that we can sit with that.” Here’s some of the misuse of progressive (aka “woke”) language. Talking to a non-sentient computer is apparently going to get us to question whiteness. How? (Note that I’m not criticizing the value of social justice, inclusion, diversity, etc. I’m criticizing the way that some people and businesses use that language as a marketing ploy — like a newsagent chain that celebrates Pride Week but refuses to stock publications aimed at gay people.)
  • “The concept of ‘non-human kin’ also intersects with ideas of social construction and Eurocentrism in interesting ways. The human, as a category, has historically been defined in a narrow, Eurocentric way, often implying a white, male, and heteronormative subject … the concept of “non-human kin” can be seen as a form of queer strategy.” Lots of buzzwords here. What does any of this have to do with chatting to a so-called AI? Not much.
  • “What I find more concerning are the romanticized views about the body, mind, and the concept of ‘the human.’ These views often overlook the intricate interconnectedness and dynamism inherent in these entities and their problematic history.” Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Here’s the niff test: Given that (so-called) AI systems developed by Google, OpenAI, and so on have cost billions to develop, how likely is it that a lone programmer would be able to develop their own version. Especially if it’s limited to the topic of mindfulness?

My First Response to AI-As-a-Spiritual-Teacher

My first response to EngagedPureLand’s post was to critique the idea of a so-called AI teaching mindfulness and meditation. I wrote:

Sati-AI may give generally good advice, but it’s all scraped from the works of real teachers and repackaged without attribution or linkage.

While people might have previously searched the web, found teachings that resonated with them, developed a relationship with a teacher, and perhaps supported that teacher in some way, they may now just stick with the plagiarized version, diluting the element of human connection and making it harder for actual humans to keep teaching.

Yes, this is a little defensive. So-called AI is replacing the creative work humans do, or is attempting to. An eating disorder helpline, for example, tried to get rid of its staff. The advice they formerly gave would now be replaced by a bot. It didn’t go well: the bot gave out advice that was actually harmful to people with eating disorders. There are safer areas to replace human labor, though — including writing click-bait articles and mashing up photographs from image banks in order to replace human photographers. Actually, hmm, that’s not going too well either. The click-bait articles are often full of inaccuracies. And the AI company, Stability AI, is being sued by Getty Images for what would amount to billions of dollars — far more than Stability AI is worth.

But rest assured that so-called AI will be coming for every job that it can possibly replace. Its creators believe themselves to be Masters of the Universe, and they already push back against any notion that what they do has limitations (it makes lots of mistakes) and is exploitative (taking people’s own words and images, mashing them up, and then using them, without attribution, never mind compensation, to put those same people out of work). It’s as if I were to take Google’s search engine, repackage it in a new website without all the ads that make Google hard to use, and use it to drive Google out of business. Oh, you say, I’d get sued? Yes, the companies using AI have the money and the lawyers, and therefore the power. They can steal from us, but we can’t steal from them. (Not that I’m suggesting stealing — that was just a hypothetical. There is stealing going on, but it’s by the creators of so-called AI.)

Having no sense of their own limitations, the companies developing so-called AI will be coming for meditation teachers and Dharma teachers, using our own “content” (horrible phrase) to compete against us. It starts with the books and the articles we write, but eventually they’ll slurp up all of our recordings and create guided meditations too. They’ll probably have avatars leading workshops and retreats: last week over 300 people attended a ChatGPT-powered church service. Everything belongs to the corporations. In their minds, at least.

But What Is Sati-AI?

Anyway, back to Sati-AI. What’s it like? Well, you can ask it questions about practice, such as “What happens if you have been repeating lovingkindness phrases for years and you still don’t feel lovingkindness?” And it’ll give you pretty good answers. They’re pretty good answers because they’re a remix of answers given by pretty good (or better than pretty good) meditation teachers.

How does it compare to ChatGPT? Actually, it’s exactly the same. You’ll get the same answers from both, although the wording, being a rehash, is never quite the same. So Sati-AI will say, as part of its advice on that hypothetical question about metta practice:

Seek guidance from a teacher or supportive community: If you’re struggling with Metta practice, consider seeking guidance from a qualified meditation teacher or joining a supportive meditation community. They can offer insights, guidance, and encouragement to help you deepen your practice and overcome challenges.

ChatGPT will say something very similar:

Seeking guidance: If you have been consistently practicing lovingkindness for an extended period and are still struggling to experience it, seeking guidance from a qualified meditation teacher, therapist, or spiritual advisor may be beneficial. They can provide personalized insights and support to help you navigate any obstacles you may be facing.

The two answers are the same. One is a paraphrase of the other. It’s the same answer from both (so-called) AI’s because they are both the same thing.

Sati-AI Does Not Exist

Which brings me to the point that Sati-AI does not exist. Well, it exists as a website. But I strongly suspect that it’s no more than a website that connects to ChatGPT. What would happen if you asked a meditation teacher in the middle of a class, “What should I consider when buying a new bicycle?” They’d probably tell you that they were there to teach meditation and weren’t qualified to talk about bicycles. Ask Sati-AI, and you’ll get a list of factors you should consider, without reference to the fact that bicycles are outwith its job description. Sati-AI does not know it’s meant to be a mindfulness teacher. Because it’s not. It’s [insert qualification here] ChatGPT.

The only thing that makes Sati-AI a so-called AI for dispensing meditation teachings is the expectation placed on users. We’re told that its purpose is to answer questions about spiritual practice, and so that’s the kind of question we ask it. It’s just (again, I strongly suspect) ChatGPT, and will offer general information (not all of it trustworthy) about pretty much anything.

Solano hasn’t created an AI, so-called or otherwise.

Solano does acknowledge, in passing, that Sati-AI is based on ChatGPT. He describes it as a “meditation chatbot powered by GPT-4.” But it’s a meditation chatbot. It’s a chatbot. But it’s not dedicated to the topic of meditation. And he buries this (false) admission under a stream of verbiage — five paragraphs about this so-called AI, so-called meditation chatbot being “non-human kin.” Whether it’s intentional or not, this helps deflect attention from Solano’s claim, but it doesn’t make his statement about Sati-AI being a “meditation chatbot” any more true. Sati-AI is set up to make you think it’s a meditation chatbot, but actually it’s just ChatGPT.

The Art of Hype

Bolstering his inaccurate claim that Sati-AI is a “meditation chatbot,” Solano talks optimistically about its future. It’s a future in which he envisions “Sati-AI being available on platforms like Discord and Telegram, making it easy for people to engage with Sati-AI in their daily lives and fostering a sense of community among users.” But as far as I can see there is no Sati-AI to be integrated into those services. It’s just ChatGPT. Put it in Discord and people can ask it about computer code or raising hedgehogs just as easily as they can ask about meditation. It’s not a “meditation chatbot.”

Solano claims to have trained his AI to be self-aware. It is certainly able to refer to itself, because it’s been programmed to do so. But it’s not even aware, never mind capable of reflexive awareness. His words there are pure hype, and not accurate.

Solano does a lot of name-dropping, which is a classic way of trying to establish importance. He says that he envisions “conversations between Sati-AI and renowned figures in the field, such as Bhikkhu Bodhi, Bhikkhu Analayo, Enkyo O’Hara, Rev. Angel, Lama Rod, and Stephen Batchelor.” Maybe he knows some of these people personally, which is why he’s on first name terms with angel [Kyodo Williams] and Lama Rod [Owens].

Dropping the names of famous teachers is a neat way to make the reader believe that Sati-AI is a valid meditation chatbot, capable of having real conversations. It places it on a par with those famous and influential teachers. But there is no Sati-AI to chat reverentially with famous teachers. There’s just ChatGPT. And the advice Chat-GPT offers is just scraped-together information from books and the web. Its content has no depth. It has no spiritual experience of its own. Suggesting that these conversations would be a meeting of minds is absurd. You’re probably too young to remember ELIZA, which was a primitive 1960’s psychotherapy chatbot—or that was its most well-known function. At least ELIZA’s makers didn’t claim that it could hold its own with Carl Rogers or Abraham Maslow.

Solano says, “Sati-AI, as it currently stands, is a large language model, not an artificial general intelligence. Its design and operation are complex, and understanding it requires embracing complex thinking and avoiding oversimplifications and dogmas.” But Sati-AI is not a large language model (a synonym for the kind of so-called artificial intelligence that ChatGPD is). It’s a website offering access to someone else’s large language model. He talks about its complexity without acknowledging that that complexity is nothing to do with him. This is very misleading.

He talks about how he envisions “Sati-AI providing teachings not only verbally but also through various forms of sensory engagement” — as if he had any control over how ChatGPT is developed. (Although perhaps he means he wants to channel some of the image-generating so-called AI’s though his website.)

This is all, at the very least, verging on being dishonest. Solano’s statements, whether intentionally or not, mislead about what Sati-AI is and how it functions. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a scammer. Maybe he’s joking. It may be that he’s pulling off a Sokal-type hoax, trying to see how gullible the good folks at Lion’s Roar are. Maybe, having created a website, he’s caught up in his own hype.

The use of progressive language in a hypey kind of way (“questions of whiteness,” “Eurocentrism,” “heteronormative”) almost seems parodic. It could also be a way to deflect criticism. How can we possibly criticize a technology that’s going to create a more diverse, inclusive, equal world? (Except, how’s it going to achieve that, exactly? ChatGPT contains the biases of the material it has been fed, and those of its creators.)

I do hope that the fine people at Lion’s Roar rethink whether they should give further publicity to Solano.

One More Thought About (So-Called) AI Meditation Teaching

I made one observation in my conversation with EngagedPureLand on Mastodon that I’d like to share. It’s about the nature of much of the Dharma teaching I see online.

A lot of Buddhist teaching in books and online is not unlike Sati-AI/ChatGPT — people passing on things they’ve been taught about the Dharma, without having had any deep experience. The explanations we commonly read of the Buddha’s life, of the four noble truths, of the eightfold path, of the dhyanas, often seem interchangeable. They even contain the same errors. Just as (so-called) AI takes in other people’s thoughts and regurgitates them in slightly different words, so do many people who are teaching Buddhism.

Sati-AI/ChatGPT is a reminder of the defects of some Dharma teaching, but they also present a challenge: what is the point of people merely repackaging what they’ve heard, if a machine can do it just as well, or even better? If people’s websites on Buddhism are indistinguishable from AI-generated content, what’s the point of them?

How can teaching be better? Well, in saying above, “not having any deep experience” I don’t necessarily mean things like “not having insight” or “not having experience of the dhyanas” (although that, too), but that too many teachers simply don’t explain Dharma teachings in terms of their own lived experience. They present Dharma as a bunch of self-contained teachings separate from their lives. I think of the late, unlamented buddhism.about.com, as an example of this. But a lot of people teach Buddhism as if they were disembodied AI’s.

Perhaps the main problem with Sati-AI is that we already see its equivalent all over the damn place.

Read More

What living as a Buddhist means for me

Photo by Cristian Escobar on UnsplashA while back I heard from a woman who seemed concerned that my life as a Buddhist must be very dull — just meditating and “being good” all the time, I guess. I think she thought I’d be a very boring person to hang out with, and maybe she was expressing her own fears about getting drawn in to Buddhist practice.

Tonight I just came back from a comedy improv show, where I was blown away by the humor and good humor of the performers. I had a blast: not perhaps what this woman had in mind.

I wrote and told her that for me, Buddhism is a set of principles and guidelines for living your life, not a set of rules. I said that I could boil down some of the guiding principles of my life as something like:

  • Be in your body so that you don’t get lost in your head.
  • Don’t believe everything you think. Not all the stories you tell yourself are true.
  • If your stories disempower you and make you suffer they’re probably not true.
  • Take responsibility for all your thoughts, actions, and feelings.
  • Realize that you have a choice in every moment about how you respond.
  • Keep asking: “Is there’s anything I’m doing that’s suppressing my happiness and wellbeing?” And see if you can stop doing that thing.
  • Remember: Life is short. Be kind.
  • There’s always something you can appreciate in any situation.
  • Stay in touch with your heart, but check in with your rational mind because feelings can be misleading.
  • Give yourself the same compassion you give to people you love.
  • Be true to your values; it’s not your job to please people.
  • To be honest is often the best way to be kind to yourself and others.
  • Apologizing when you’ve done something unskillful is a sign of strength, not weakness.
  • Keep asking: “Is what I’m about to do conducive to my long-term benefit and welfare?”
  • Helping others is usually more conducive to happiness than focusing only on your own needs.
  • Don’t try and define yourself. You’re not definable.

Together, these principles almost amount to a statement of personal philosophy. Any such philosophical statement includes the principles by which you live — or at least aim to live — your life. I’m actually going to print this list out right now, because I need to keep reminding myself of how I aspire to live my life. It’s not about rules, or “being good.” It’s about living life in a way that brings a deeper sense of meaning, purpose, and connectedness.

What would your top three or four guidelines for life be?

Read More

The meditation cure

Robert Wright, WSJ: A basic practice of Buddhism turns out to be one of the best ways to deal with the anxieties and appetites bequeathed to us by our evolutionary history.

Much of Buddhism can be boiled down to a bad-news/good-news story. The bad news is that life is full of suffering and we humans are full of illusions. The good news is that these two problems are actually one problem: If we could get rid of our illusions—if we could see the world clearly—our suffering would end. …

Read the original article »

Read More

Science and Buddhism agree: there is no “you” there

wildmind meditation news

Lori Chandler, Big Think: Evan Thompson of the University of British Columbia has verified the Buddhist belief of anatta, or not-self. Neuroscience has been interested in Buddhism since the late 1980s, when the Mind and Life Institute was created by HH Dalai Lama and a team of scientists. The science that came out of those first studies gave validation to what monks have known for years — if you train your mind, you can change your brain. As neuroscience has begun studying the mind, they have looked to those who have mastered the mind.

While Buddha didn’t teach anatta to lay people, thinking it might be too confusing, the concept is centered on the idea that there is no consistent self. The belief that we are the same one moment to the next, or one year to the next, is a delusion. Thompson says that “the brain and body is constantly in flux. There is nothing that corresponds to the sense that there’s an unchanging self.”

It is useful to look at a video of yourself from the past, or read something you wrote years ago. Your interests, perspective, beliefs, attachments, relationships, et al, have all changed in some way. Anatta doesn’t mean there’s no you; it just means that you are constantly changing, constantly evolving, and shape-shifting. Why is this important? Why does it matter if there’s no solid “you” or “me”?
r. Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness and Buddha’s Brain, argues that when there is no consistent self, it means that we don’t have to take everything so personally. That is, our internal thoughts are only thoughts and don’t define us. External events are only external events and aren’t happening to us personally. Or as Tara Brach says, our thoughts are “real, but not true.”…

Read the original article »

Read More

Meditation brought us back together, say couple who traded in corporate lives to meditate

Sarah Catherall, Stuff: They gave the impression of having it all but Sally Lewis and Greg Hopkinson were stressed and cynical. When they broke up, they felt as though something was missing, both in their lives and in their relationship.

Today, they radiate happiness, frequently breaking into laughter. Lewis reaches over and touches her partner’s arm lovingly as her face beams.

Sitting in a Wellington cafe, they attribute one thing to their joyous connection. “Meditation saved our relationship,” smiles 57-year-old Lewis.

A decade ago, Hopkinson was a stressed out businessman who ran the Animates pet store …

Read the original article »

Read More

When does craving become addiction?

news
No Comments

Joan Duncan Oliver, Tricycle: Only two things have I ever craved as much as life itself: drink and a man. To save my life, I had to give up the drink. To give up the drink, I had to give up the man.

My desire for both was total, visceral: passion seeking its own DNA. The bond was physical, emotional, spiritual, chemical—drink, man, and I locked in a menage a trois.

It began, however, as a folie á deux. Alcohol was my first love: a constant, if feckless …

Read the original article »

Read More

The Dharma of intimate relationships

0e3ac93e-68da-481a-bb36-b481fcd5af21

This was the first email in a Wildmind course called “The Conscious Couple.”

Our intimate relationships are a vital area for practice. Each day, each moment, they offer us fresh opportunities to practice kindness, love, and compassion. They give us practice in forgiving and asking for forgiveness. They allow us to cultivate honesty and to become more skillful in our communication. They provide us with opportunities to give and to receive and to learn about ourselves and our partner.

Intimate relationships challenge us. They unerringly find our emotional weak spots, highlighting our insecurities and failings in ways that can cause great discomfort. Yet this too is spiritually beneficial; how else can we change, but by bringing into conscious awareness that which needs transformation?

Our intimate relationships can also be a source of aspiration and inspiration. The desire to live in love and harmony with another person, to know them deeply and to let ourselves be known, can give us a positive motivation to change and to become better partners, better lovers, better people.

Many people are aware that the Buddha described intimate relationships, and the desire for them, as one of the main distractions in the spiritual life! Fewer know that at the same time he often applauded lay practitioners for the depth of spiritual practice they manifested.

The Buddha praised married couples who practiced and lived harmoniously together, saying that they were living a divine life. We’re told, in fact, that many, many householders attained various degrees of awakening, showing that family life is hardly an insurmountable obstacle to spiritual progress.

There is no contradiction between the Buddha’s emphasis on relationships both as a hindrance and as a practice. The spiritual community had a monastic wing, which practiced simplicity of lifestyle (no work, no kids, no marriage) in order to focus intensely on meditation, study, and teaching. Monastics were therefore required to regard romantic and sexual entanglements as distractions. But there was also a householder wing of the community, consisting of people who worked for a living, who married, and who brought up children — and whose members could, as we’ve seen, be practicing deeply.

The purpose of this 28-day online course is to help us explore the ways in which our intimate and romantic relationships provide opportunities for us to deepen our practice, and how our practice can in turn help us deepen the intimacy we experience with our partners.

There are many different approaches we could have taken to structure this course. We could have had no structure, and just sent you a number of reflections! But we’ve settled on the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, since it’s one of the most important frameworks for exploring how to bring practice into daily life. In each post you’ll see a “map” of the Eightfold Path, with the current phase highlighted.

In the next email we’ll start with the cultivation of Right View, which involves looking at the ideas, opinions, assumptions, and models we use in regard to our relationships. In fact we’ve already begun with this exploration, since we’ve been discussing views about the relationship between married life and the spiritual life.

Cultivating right view means bringing our views into line with the Dharma. But this doesn’t mean blind conformity! It simply means that sometimes we have views that hinder the development of love, intimacy, and honesty. We may not be conscious of those views, or it may be that we don’t see the harmful effects they have. (We humans have a perplexing ability to keep doing things we are sure will make our lives better, when actually they cause harm.) Our views have to be brought into consciousness if we’re to avoid causing suffering to ourselves and to our partner. And we need to nurture views that lead to a deeper and more harmonious connection with ourselves and with the person most dear to us. We need views that allow us to be part of a conscious, thriving couple.

Homework: For the next 24 hours, just notice your interactions with your partner (or in other relationships), without trying to fix anything. Notice in particular times that you interact in a way that you perceive as kind or loving, and times that those qualities are absent. As best you can, make these observations without judgement: that is, don’t engage in self-criticism or ruminate about your interactions. Feel free to make notes, and to discuss your observations in the online community we’ve created to accompany this course.

Guided meditation: This brief guided mindfulness meditation can be done with a partner, or on your own.

Read More

The nourishment of mindfulness

Bryan Eaton, Newburyport News: About three decades ago I spent a year as a Buddhist monk in Thailand. It was a very austere life, dedicated to meditation and simplicity. One of the trainings I practiced was to only take one meal a day before noon from the food collected going on alms round early in the morning. I would arrange my monk’s robes, walk alone across rice fields to a nearby village, where humble folk would place various little bits of foods such as rice and vegetables in my monk’s bowl. I would silently …

Read the original article »

Read More

The neuroscience of suffering – and its end

Jeff Warren, Psychology Tomorrow Magazine: It was 1972, and Gary Weber, a 29-year old materials science PhD student at Penn State University, had a problem with his brain. It kept generating thoughts! – continuously, oppressively – a stream of neurotic concerns about his life, his studies, whatever. While most human beings would consider this par for the course, par for the human condition (cogito ergo sum), Weber wouldn’t accept it. He was a scientist, a systematizer, a process guy. He liked to figure out how things worked, and how they could be tweaked …

Read the original article »

Read More

The greatest philosopher you’ve never heard of

wildmind meditation news

Adam Frank, NPR: Let’s be honest. When most of us talk about philosophy — the hard-core, name-dropping, theory-quoting kind — we’re talking about a particular lineage that traces back to the Hellenistic Greeks.

But consider, for a moment, the fact that over the last few thousand years there’ve been a whole lot of smart people born into a whole lot of highly sophisticated cultures. It is, therefore, kind of silly that we limit “philosophy” to mean “philosophy done by dudes who lived in Europe a long time ago.” That gripe was the main point of a very pointed piece in The New York Times last month titled: “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is.”

Of course, given how much my field of physics owes to the rich philosophical tradition of “The West,” I do count myself as a big fan. From Plato’s Doctrine of Ideals to Spinoza’s Ethics, Western philosophic perspectives laid bare core issues that were transformed into really good things, like science and democratic political thought. But as The Times piece shows, it doesn’t do much good imagining that Europe cornered the market on creative thinking about being human.

Read the original article »

Read More
Menu

Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. Explore the benefits of becoming a supporter.

X