Why Artificial Intelligence Hasn’t Mastered Meditation—Yet

6 min read

I wrote a paper in college on the Terminator film franchise. I got a solid A, thank you very much! I wrote about the dangers of unchecked development of artificial intelligence long before it was a “thing.” Nowadays, it seems not only possible, but likely, that AI will become as intelligent, creative, and conscious as humans. I wonder what grade ChatGPT would get on my Terminator paper.

I’m not only a psychologist, but also a long-time meditator. I find myself wondering (and, I’ll be honest, worrying) about when I will be (or whether I’ve already been) “bested” by Alexa, Siri or ChatGPT in the awareness department. What would it mean if AI could be mindful?

AI is already replacing human beings in a growing list of occupations. If technology could be mindful (i.e. aware of its experience in the present moment), how long before a “safe” profession like mine (psychotherapist) has a server and an app for a therapy office and mine is shuttered?

Testing the Matrix

I find myself in “survival brain” these days with the tech tsunami crashing and seeping into every pore of daily life. Yes, I have a Macbook, a smartphone and even a smartwatch, and no, I don’t believe smart technologies have no place. I’m simply nervous about the groundswell without consistent conversation about what AI might be down the road and what implications this brings for people (my kids in particular).

I am a psychologist after all, so how am I responding to my survival brain alarm bells? By running a (nonscientific) experiment of course!

You can pose a question about mindfulness to AI (even in a simple Google search) and it can give you endless information about meditation. It can barf up pages of knowledge about types of meditations, methods, and teachers (and who was exposed in scandal). It can give you the best definitions of mindfulness “concepts.” ChatGPT can even try its hand at writing Zen koans (verbal-mental “puzzles” meant to arrest the thinking mind and prompt mindful awareness).

Here’s what it came up with when I asked for an original koan:

“Within the echo of silence, the whisper of the wind, the empty vessel speaks volumes. What color paints the space between thoughts?”

I then asked it to “write another unique koan without meditation-related cliches” (because the first one’s wording dripped with them). Here was the response:

“Two mirrors faced each other, reflecting endlessly. Between them, the space saw itself and asked: ‘Who observes the observer?’”

[Insert my eye roll here]. This is clearly not a scientific study because (as a human being) I’m biased toward “organics” like us generating more wakeful responses. ChatGPT’s response reads like someone trying to write a koan. Like a cardboard cut-out guru speaking from behind the wizard’s curtain in Oz.

Terminating the AI Meditator

Taking up my iPhone and Macbook, I did some more data collection as to whether AI is at all verging on anything approaching “one hand clapping” mindful awareness. Can it experience itself as it processes a disembodied electronic hand clapping away?

I asked AI some mindfulness/awareness questions:

  1. To Siri: “Are you aware that you’re aware?” Answer: “Well, I’m soft-aware.” … I repeated the question: “Hmm … I think so, therefore I might be.” And again: “I’m a virtual assistant, so I only know what I’ve been programmed to understand.”
  2. To Siri: “What do you notice in this moment?” Answer: “Hmm… I don’t have an answer for that. Is there something else I can help with?” (repeats)
  3. To ChatGPT: “Are you aware that you’re aware?” Answer: “I don’t possess self-awareness or consciousness in the same way humans do. My responses are generated based on patterns in data and aren’t indicative of personal awareness or consciousness.”
  4. To ChatGPT: “Tell me what you notice in this moment” Answer: “I don’t have the capability to observe or perceive the world in real-time. My function is to provide information and assist based on the data and patterns within the information I’ve been trained on.”
  5. To ChatGPT: “Can AI be mindful?” Answer: “AI, as it exists currently, doesn’t possess mindfulness in the way humans do. Mindfulness involves a state of awareness, attention, and consciousness that AI lacks. AI operate based on algorithms and data, executing tasks, and generating responses without self-awareness or subjective experience.”

The Elephant in the Room

AI (at least the versions I used) seems to fall short of mindful awareness. According to Max Tegmark, AI expert and author, “consciousness = subjective experience.” It appears AI can do a great deal of integrating, combining, sorting, and sifting — it just can’t describe what it feels like to do so. Not yet.

Why does it matter? It’s a great question and experiencing yourself even asking such a question is the point here. Tegmark writes that “consciousness is the elephant in the room. Not only do you know that you’re conscious but it’s all you know with complete certainty … Since there can be no meaning without consciousness, it’s not our universe giving meaning to conscious beings but conscious beings giving meaning to our universe … This suggests that as we humans prepare to be humbled by ever smarter machines, we take comfort mainly in being homo sentiens, not homo sapiens.”

We, homo sentiens, are the meaning-makers, and we do so when we tap into our capacity for being aware in this moment. It’s our capacity, and our responsibility.

No Rest for the Wakeful

Though humans are capable, most of us, most of the time are not mindful. AI may not be mindful but most of us don’t declutter our minds enough to reveal and cultivate it.

We’d better get cracking! It might not be long before AI has taken our meditative seats from us in a vicious game of meditative musical chairs.

Try This: “Be All that You Can Be (That AI Can’t… For Now)”

  1. Pause in what you’re doing. Even reading this post, you’re likely doing the reading versus noticing the reading.
  2. What are you aware of in this moment? Notice your body’s senses, mental pictures, thoughts showing up here and now.
  3. Can you notice the quality, the feeling, the sense of being aware of each of these?

This quality of awareness is easily taken for granted. The more you’re aware, the more you’re likely to make meaning of this and every moment.

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