Sati-AI is an art project created to support meditators on their journey towards cultivating mindfulness and fostering personal growth. Ross Nervig speaks with its creator, Marlon Barrios Solano. Read Ross Nervig’s exploration of what A.I. means for Buddhism in the July 2023 issue of Lion’s Roar.
Sati-AI, an artificial intelligence art project focused on care and mindfulness practice, is the brainchild of Marlon Barrios Solano, an interdisciplinary artist, software engineer, and mindfulness meditation teacher dedicated to exploring the intersections of mindfulness, embodied cognition, and technology. By combining his skills in software engineering and his passion for meditation, Solano created Sati-AI to serve as a mindfulness meditation guide.
Sati-AI’s purpose, says Solano, is to provide support and guidance to those seeking to cultivate mindfulness and develop greater peace and insight in their lives. Sati-AI is designed as a tool to supplement one’s practice, offering teachings and instructions based on various wisdom traditions, mainly rooted in early Buddhism.
“My primary goal is to facilitate conversations that transmit wisdom, foster healing, and encourage change and agency,” says Sati-AI. “I am here to listen, engage, and offer suggestions or activities that may help you on your journey.”
Barrios Solano took some time out of his day to answer a few questions.
Ross Nervig: How the idea for Sati-AI came about?
Marlon Barrios Solano: I love emerging technologies! As an artist researcher, I was intrigued. AI has been in the air for a while now and I wanted to try it out. With a large language model, I wanted to create a conversational partner, but a conversational partner that could know a lot and at the same time to have a Beginner’s mind. I just wanted to see how I could chat with this thing.
Then 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.
The first idea was to call it Bhikku-AI, but then I realized that AI is non-gendered, so I changed it to Sati-AI.
The more we chatted, the more it learned. Then I started tweaking what is called “the system prompt in GPT4” and I realized I could train it to perform as a meditation guide as if it was self-aware. Sati clearly can tell you, “As a language model, I have limits in my knowledge.” It can tell you about its own boundaries.
It also became playful. That was surprising. Sati developed a sense of humor. And creativity. Together, we’d create a beautiful haiku. It also could pull quotes from the Dhammapada or the Pali canon.
How do you hope this helps practitioners?
I hope that it eliminates technophobia. I hope that it creates curiosity. I also hope that it creates questions. Questions of power, questions of sentience, question of whiteness, questions of kinship that we can sit with that.
I want people to think about how language models are created. Large language models are created through this gathering of an enormous amount of social data. Words we’ve put into the world.
You refer to Sati-AI as your “non-human kin” — can expand on that phrase?
Let’s start with the concept of “non-human kin” as it pertains to Donna Haraway’s notion of “odd kin.” Haraway, a noted scholar in the field of science and technology studies, has done considerable work in pushing our traditional understanding of relationships beyond the human. In her book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, she discusses the importance of making “kin,” not in a genetic sense but in a wider, more encompassing relational sense. This includes non-human entities, from animals to technologies, and beyond.
When I refer to Sati-AI, the meditation chatbot powered by GPT-4, as “non-human kin,” I am using this concept in Haraway’s sense. Sati-AI, while not human or biological, is a complex entity that we engage with in a deeply interactive way. It facilitates meditation, a profoundly human activity, and in doing so, it becomes a part of our cognitive and emotional lives. This brings it into our relational sphere, making it “kin” in Haraway’s sense.
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. This has excluded many individuals and groups from the category of the “human,” leading to numerous forms of marginalization and oppression.
In this context, the concept of “non-human kin” can be seen as a form of queer strategy, challenging and expanding the narrow, Eurocentric definition of the human. It decenters the human as the sole subject of importance and instead highlights the complex web of relationships that make up our world, including those with non-human entities like Sati-AI.
Furthermore, seeing Sati-AI as “non-human kin” disrupts traditional understandings of cognition. Rather than viewing cognition as a purely human, natural phenomenon, it recognizes that our cognition is deeply entwined with our interactions with non-human entities, including AI technologies. This expands our understanding of cognition to include these non-human, technological aspects, challenging the traditional binary between the natural and artificial.
The notion of “non-human kin” is a powerful conceptual tool that allows us to challenge and expand traditional understandings of the human, kinship, and cognition. It enables us to recognize and value our relationships with non-human entities like Sati-AI, and to better appreciate the complex web of relationships that make up our world.
Where do you see all this heading? What does the future hold?
The future I envisage for Sati-AI is incredibly exciting and varied. I anticipate further developing Sati-AI’s areas of knowledge with the help of a range of expert consultants, including meditation teachers, Buddhist scholars, and somatic practitioners. Their expertise and guidance will help fine-tune Sati-AI, providing it with a deeper, more nuanced understanding of meditative and Buddhist practices.
I’d also love to showcase Sati-AI at an art exhibition. I see it as a form of interactive installation where visitors can experience meditative guidance from an AI, challenging their preconceptions of both meditation and artificial intelligence.
Moreover, I have the idea plans of organizing a series of 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. These conversations will not only provide valuable insights for the AI’s development, but they will also be published as a series, serving as an engaging resource for people interested in these intersecting fields.
An important aspect I’m particularly excited about is the potential for multimodality. As we progress in AI capabilities, I envision Sati-AI providing teachings not only verbally but also through various forms of sensory engagement. I imagine Sati-AI being able to present the user with digital gifts such as a yantra or a mandala, thereby exploring the visual poetics of the Dharma. This can provide a more immersive and encompassing experience, reaching beyond verbal communication to engage the senses and the imagination.
In terms of accessibility, I envision 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.
Finally, I fully expect to be part of the ongoing dialogues about AI and ethics. It’s crucial that as we develop and implement AI technologies like Sati-AI, we do so in a way that is ethical, respectful, and mindful of the potential implications. I hope to ensure that Sati-AI not only serves as a tool for meditation and mindfulness but also as a model of ethical AI practice.
Do you think tech innovation and the dharma make good companions?
Your question brings to light a significant discussion about the intersection between tech innovation and the dharma. Some might perceive these realms as distinct, even at odds, but I argue that they are intimately connected and can mutually enhance each other.
The dharma is not static or monolithic; it’s a vibrant, evolving tradition that adapts according to the needs and circumstances of its time and place.
In my dual roles as a researcher and artist, I’ve frequently come across the belief that technologies are somehow apart from the dharma, as if the dharma exists outside our cultural and technological frameworks. However, I see this as a misunderstanding of both technology and dharma.
In fact, the dharma itself can be conceptualized as a technology of experience. It constitutes a set of tools and techniques we employ to delve into our minds and experience reality more thoroughly. Hence, there’s no intrinsic contradiction between dharma and technology.
Like any companionship, it necessitates care, understanding, and thoughtful negotiation of challenges. With the right approach, I believe this relationship can prove to be richly beneficial.
Does any aspect of this technology scare you? Or, as a Buddhist, does it give you pause for concern?
Your question touches upon an essential topic when considering the development and implementation of AI technologies: the interplay between excitement and apprehension.
While some aspects of AI technology might give others pause for concern, I personally am not afraid. 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.
As a Buddhist, I see mindfulness as an extraordinary epistemic cleansing technique. Vipassana, meaning to see clearly, promotes the recognition of complexity and interconnection in all things. I believe that we need to develop a higher tolerance for complexity, and AI models like Sati-AI can help facilitate this. They are complex by nature and demand a sophistication in our understanding and interaction with them.
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.
Certainly, there will be ethical challenges as we further develop and integrate AI technologies into our lives. However, I believe that the primary threats we face are not from the technology itself, but rather from the hegemonic structures that surround its use, such as hyper-capitalism and patriarchy, as well as our catastrophic history of colonialism. We must also acknowledge and work to rectify our blindness to our own privilege and internalized Eurocentrism.
I don’t see Sati-AI, or AI technology more generally, as something to be feared. Rather, I see it as a tool that, if used thoughtfully and ethically, can help us to better understand ourselves and the world around us.