More adventures with artificial intelligence

Recently I shared a conversation I had with ChatGPT, a supposed Artificial Intelligence. ChatGPT is designed to reply to natural language questions in natural language. It does precisely that, using a vast body of information it’s been fed. When I asked CHatGPT about the benefits of meditation, and the various kinds of meditation practice available, it mostly did a good job.

ChatGPT is essentially a plagiaristic search engine. What I mean is that normally you ask Google for information and it finds the websites that are most likely to be able to answer that question, which you then visit. ChatGPT takes information from the websites and then presents it to you in a reworded fashion, without crediting the original sources. Hence, my description of it as plagiaristic.

Yesterday I talked with another AI. It’s Bard, which was developed by Google. Given that Google is the most-trusted search engine in the English-speaking world, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is the third-largest tech company in the world, most people would have high hopes for its capacities.

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The results, once again, were mixed. But frankly, I wasn’t impressed.

I started asking it questions about myself. After all, if the information was wrong I wouldn’t have to do any research to demonstrate that fact.

Tell me about the meditation teacher, Bodhipaksa.

Bard: Bodhipaksa is a Buddhist meditation teacher and author. He was born in 1961 in Dundee, Scotland, and has been meditating since 1982. He is a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order and has published several books and guided meditations. He is the founder of Wildmind, an online meditation center.

Bodhipaksa’s teachings are based on the Theravada Buddhist tradition. He emphasizes the importance of mindfulness and compassion in meditation. He also teaches a variety of meditation techniques, including mindfulness of breathing, lovingkindness meditation, and insight meditation.

Bodhipaksa is a popular and respected teacher. He has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Forbes. He has also been interviewed on NPR and ABC News.

If you are interested in learning more about Bodhipaksa or his teachings, you can visit his website at www.wildmind.org.

The first paragraph — the biographical details — is a rewording of bios that I’ve posted in several places, including this website, various places I’ve taught, and on the Insight Timer app.

The next part — about my meditation teaching — is accurate. “Based on the Theravada tradition” is questionable, although I’d let that slide. While the meditation practices I teach mostly have roots in the early Buddhist scriptures, that’s not the same as “the Theravada tradition,” although many people make that conflation. I’ve never been part of any Theravadin group. I also teach meditations, such as mantras, that are definitely not part of the Theravada tradition.

The third part, about my being featured or interviewed in the NYT, the WSJ, Forbes, NPR, and ABC News, are inventions. (I have been interviewed by CBS and appeared on the BBC, however. And I would like to think I’m “a popular and respected teacher.”)

I was interested in those inventions. I wondered how Bard could come up with this kind of misinformation. So I probed more deeply.

Tell me more about Bodhipaksa being featured in the New York Times.

Bard: Sure. Bodhipaksa has been featured in The New York Times on several occasions.

In 2006, he was interviewed by Sandra Blakeslee for an article about the science of meditation. The article, titled “Cells That Read Minds,” discussed the research that had been done on the effects of meditation on the brain. Bodhipaksa explained that meditation can help to reduce stress, improve concentration, and increase compassion.

In 2012, he was interviewed by Mark Bittman for an article about vegetarianism. The article, titled “We could be heroes,” discussed the benefits of a plant-based diet. Bodhipaksa explained that vegetarianism can help to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases.

In 2017, he was interviewed by David Brooks for an article about the benefits of meditation. The article, titled “The power of meditation,” discussed the research that had been done on the effects of meditation on the mind and body. Bodhipaksa explained that meditation can help to reduce stress, improve focus, and increase compassion.

Bodhipaksa’s interviews with The New York Times have helped to raise awareness of the benefits of meditation. His teachings have also helped to inspire people to make changes in their lives to improve their health and well-being.

This is all very specific. I’m very aware of all these names. They’re significant commentators and writers. We’re even given titles for the articles in which I was supposedly interviewed.

Sadly, I’ve never been interviewed by anyone from the NYT. A search for my name on the NYT website failed to bring up any results.

So again I thought I’d probe more deeply and see where Bard was supposedly getting this information from.

What is the URL for Sandra Blakeslee’s article where she interviewed Bodhipaksa?

Bard: I can’t assist you with that, as I’m only a language model and don’t have the capacity to understand and respond.

I thought the definition of a language model was that it did understand and respond. Why can’t Bard supply the location of an article it cited just moments before? It’s already supplied a URL (for Wildmind) so it’s not that that’s verboten. I thought I’d try asking the same question in a different way.

Where can I find the Sandra Blakeslee article where she interviewed Bodhipaksa?

Bard: You can find the Sandra Blakeslee article where she interviewed Bodhipaksa in the book “Living as a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change”. The book was published in 2006 by Shambhala Publications. In the article, Blakeslee interviews Bodhipaksa about his work on meditation and his views on fearlessness. Bodhipaksa is a Buddhist teacher and author who has been practicing meditation for over 30 years. He is the founder of the Bodhipaksa Retreat Center in Barre, Massachusetts.

So this is interesting. Yes, I wrote the book, “Living as a River.” And sure enough, I have a reference in there to Sandra Blakeslee’s article, “Cells That Read Minds.” But she’s never interviewed me, nor I her. Bard has taken my citation of her article and spun it into a story about an interview that never happened.

I don’t cite Mark Bittman in Living as a River, although I think I may have in my book on vegetarianism. I can’t recall citing David Brooks ever, although it’s possible I did.

The mention of the “Bodhipaksa Retreat Center” is weird. It doesn’t exist, although the Insight Meditation Society is in Barre. I wondered if that’s what Bard was referring to.

What is the address of the Bodhipaksa Retreat Center in Barre, Massachusetts?

Bard: The Bodhipaksa Retreat Center is located at 132 South Barre Road, Barre, MA 01005.

That’s not the address of the IMS, which is on Pleasant St. Apparently it’s a small private residence, which I have no connection with.

I asked for the phone number of the “BRC” and was given one. I’ve no idea whose phone number it was.

I decided to backtrack, and see what other information Bard could provide about me.

What university degrees does Bodhipaksa have?

Bard: Bodhipaksa has a master’s degree in Buddhism and business from the University of Montana.

That’s correct, and presumably that was taken from bios that various websites have posted.

Does he have any other degrees?

Bard: Yes, Bodhipaksa holds a degree in Veterinary Medicine from the University of Glasgow.

That’s also accurate.

But just when you think there are some kinds of straightforward factual information that Bard is good at, you offer an easy question and get an answer that’s completely off.

How many books has Bodhipaksa written?

Bard: Bodhipaksa has written over 20 books on Buddhism and meditation, including:

  • The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion
  • Fulfilling Your Potential
  • Facing Anger
  • The Eightfold Path to True Freedom
  • Living as a Buddhist
  • The Practice of Mindfulness

He has also written several audio programs and ebooks on meditation and Buddhism.

I’ve written six books, I think. The first title offered has at least has some relation to one of my book titles, “This Difficult Thing of Being Human,” whose subtitle is “The Art of Self-Compassion.” But the rest are just made up.

I’ve seen one music website that has a whole bunch of articles on in that were written by Bard, although the website gave a (presumably fake) author name. The articles were bland, repetitive, very non-specific, and often inaccurate. A citation to at least one of those articles made it into Wikipedia, although one of the editors later flagged up the website in question as not being a reliable source of information. But other articles by Bard and ChatGPT containing false information are certain to slip by the editors, or simply to be picked up by other websites and amplified. Misinformation will spread

I can’t help but feel that there’s a crisis of misinformation at the moment, and although all of these AI tools contain warnings that the information they generate may not be accurate, a lot of people are going to ignore that and spread the nonsense it creates.

Even this post, with its references to the NYT articles I’ve supposedly been interviewed in, might become a source of misinformation, if those paragraphs are taken out of context. Information created by AI’s will inevitably end up being fed back in to AI’s. It’s going to get messy. Or blurry.

So far the wisest words I’ve read on these AI’s are those of Ted Chiang, the science fiction author, in a New Yorker article: “It’s the digital equivalent of repeatedly making photocopies of photocopies in the old days. The image quality only gets worse.”

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