ChatGPT + Socially Engaged Buddhism, Part I

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

Cyberpunk Buddha using laptop. Image generated with DALL-E 2

Note: The following text has been carefully inserted into the mind of a human being – in other words, no artificial intelligence was forced to write this article!

School teachers, soccer moms and software engineers are all talking about it: ChatGTP may seem like our first real glimpse of artificial intelligence, although the message of this new medium is still unclear.

For those blissfully oblivious or disciplined enough not to fall into the thrall of AI-assisted chatbots, ChatGPT is a free text-based artificial intelligence tool that is capable of generating sophisticated responses to an almost unlimited number of questions. Too lazy to come up with a creative meal from leftovers in the fridge? Need to write that mid-term paper on Dr BR Ambedkar's lasting social impact in modern India? Curious to read a one-page summary of Nagarjuna's Dialectics of Emptiness written for a 12-year-old? ChatGPT has you covered or at least will drop you off in the deep.

Whichever way you look at it, ChatGPT and other AI chatbots, such as Google's Bard and Microsoft's Bing, are causing a stir in the collective. But to clearly see the reality of this emerging technology, we need to cut through manic media narratives to glimpse the truth when it comes to our deepest values.

Enlightened bodhisattva writing a text message. Image generated with DALL-E 2

Cut through the hype

In pursuit of this clarity, the ever-reliable trail of money appears as a starting point for mastering the situation. Recently, Microsoft publicly announced its intention to continue its "multi-billion dollar" investment in OpenAI, the company that built ChatGPT (and other high-octane AI tools such as DALL-E, a text-to-image generation platform). By building AI support directly into Microsoft's Bing search engine, the company hopes to carve out some of Google's 90% market dominance.

If AI is truly capable of revolutionizing the way we search for information on the Internet, as OpenAI CEO Sam Altman predicts, we are only at the beginning of a steep curve in technological innovation that is typically impossible to predict. An AI-fueled gold rush akin to the dot-com boom may be imminent, hence the heavy investment from an organization like Microsoft, which the public would generally assume has its finger on the pulse.

But what exactly would create this value? Fast, efficient and highly consistent manipulation of large data sets. Practically, this is already the basic purpose of Internet search engines, and AI tools will only make this activity more natural and precise, like asking an intelligent human assistant (who knows you well) to perform the tasks assigned to you.

Without getting lost in the weeds of potentially troubling implications that last sentence invites, let's get back to the present. In fact, ChatGPT is the first big step in a long journey of human integration with artificial intelligence modes. Indeed, the evolutionary course of these systems is in no way separate from ours. The machine learning mechanisms and computational wisdom that built ChatGPT are themselves functions of the human mind – extensions of it in coded behavior designed to mimic our own thinking and processing abilities. information. Of course, by the same token, those less desirable qualities of human thought are also coded, namely ignorance manifested by inconsistencies in the validity of historical information and unconscious biases. Still a work in progress, OpenAI is clear that ChatGPT's flaws are the result of finite data on which the model was trained and a mesh of emerging challenges to consistent meaning-making – excuses akin to "I didn't know pas" or "that's not what I meant" often heard during disagreements with friends or colleagues.

Buddha made of random text. Image generated with Stable Diffusion

mimicry machine

Here we find a rich vein of engaged Buddhist reflection, a vision first concerned with the experience of the individual before extending to structural and ultimately cultural awareness of our interdependence and mutual responsibility to create a harmonious society.

At the individual level, ChatGPT opens an important doorway to self-reflection through the very principles on which it operates. Aside from solving high-tech problems below the surface, at this point in its development, ChatGPT essentially functions as a prediction machine. Based on the entered prompt, the machine predicts the most accurate answer by gathering information from the colossal dataset it was trained on. Humans do much the same thing.

Most of the time, we are highly predictable creatures operating in deeply conditioned patterns determined by our past experiences. Our responses to prompts aren't hard to predict, especially by loved ones, and our problem-solving approaches tend to follow well-honed cognitive grooves. In Buddhism, these habitual mental grooves or formations are called skandhas (Pali. what was assembled). In meditation we experience these furrows that draw us away from direct perception and in familiar conceptual realms that proceed to cloud consciousness with alluring forms. Regularly waking up to this habitual pattern is the practice of mindfulness, a method used to actively intervene in thought processes that drift away from reality into ignorance and delusion.

ChatGPT does not have a mindfulness – at least not yet – and so we must consider that there are no mechanisms in place for an ethical or moral realignment when entering prompts to intentionally manipulate technology away from personal values. or collective.

However, ChatGPT is already advanced enough to mimic the predictable quality of our linguistic minds so well that we find it not only sufficient for automating complex tasks (such as writing essays, troubleshooting code, etc.), but also strange, even therapeutic when we focus on those subjects that are most dear to us.

Digital Bodhisattva. Image courtesy of INEB

An AI mirror

Take for example how New York-based artist and technologist Michelle Huang decided to use ChatGPT's cousin program, GPTPlayground, to create her own "inner child chatbot." By training the technology on 40 text snippets from journal entries that Michelle wrote between the ages of 7 and 18, she was able to get "working answers" to the questions she asked in a way that she knew. described as "uncannily similar" to how she felt her younger self would have written. By engaging in this text conversation, Michelle recognized patterns in the thought process of “Young Michelle” that helped her connect and release nagging feelings of low self-esteem and disappointment she carried. since his childhood.

While it's not recommended to start using ChatGPT as a personal therapist, the self-reflective potential of this technology abounds and, at least in Michelle's case, has supported skillful engagement with her own suffering.

What is beginning to emerge as a line across in the individual's relationship with technologies such as ChatGPT is the growing importance of discernment and critical awareness. In a world that is rapidly becoming co-written by advanced non-breathing language models, we must remember not to take everything that is read as verbatim truth. The proliferation of well-crafted fake news and various other means of ideologically weaponizing generative AI demands that we take responsibility for careful filtering of our modern media regimes.

Just like in the Kalama Sutta the Buddha encouraged his disciples to practice ehipassiko (Pali. seeing for oneself the truth), we too must diligently practice discernment in the strange new world of articulate gibberish that now surrounds us.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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