AI Pioneer Geshe Monlam Visits the BDRC Office

The avatar of AI in the Tibetan community is Geshe Lobsang Monlam, PhD, founder and CEO of the Monlam Tibetan IT Research Center. Geshe Monlam's mission to revolutionize Tibetan language technology in order to break down barriers and share Buddhist knowledge resonates with many areas of BDRC's work.

Geshe Monlam made a huge splash in November 2023 when he unveiled groundbreaking AI developments for Tibetan at an event in Dharamsala that was as well-staged and exciting as an Apple product launch. (View a video of the event in this Facebook video). The highlight was a highly-accurate machine translation tool that translates relatively fluently between Tibetan and English and is getting better by the day. Following this successful launch Geshe Monlam is now touring the US, and he made a special trip to Boston to meet with BDRC staff on Wednesday January 17. 

Since meeting in 2022 at the International Association of Tibetan Studies conference in Prague, BDRC has enjoyed a productive working relationship with Geshe Monlam, and it was a pleasure to meet again in person. In the intervening period Geshe Monlam defended his dissertation and was awarded his PhD in library science, so we were able to congratulate him on being among the select few who have earned both a Geshe degree in the Tibetan Buddhist education system and the equivalent in the international system. 

Geshe Monlam is well known for the milestone publication of the Grand Monlam Tibetan Dictionary, which contains Tibetan-language definitions for over 360,000 words. In April 2023 BDRC completed the integration of the dictionary into BDRC's digital archive, where it can be used in conjunction with our vast e-text collection. Building on the success of this initial collaboration, we are currently offering technical support to Monlam IT and Monlam AI on a range of projects including Tibetan Natural Language Processing, Machine Translation, and Optical Character Recognition. As Artificial Intelligence initiatives gather pace around the globe, Geshe Monlam is working with international partners including BDRC to develop AI software tools for the Tibetan language. 

The breakthrough technology of Monlam AI is now available online. At users can access four machine learning tools free of charge: Machine Translation Model, Optical Character Recognition, Speech-to-Text and Text-to-Speech. You can try it for yourself by logging in on the Monlam AI website to see how it handles translation between Tibetan and English. 

Geshe Monlam and his colleague Tenzin Norsang spent two hours at the BDRC office speaking with librarians Karma Gongde, Kelsang Lhamo, and Chungdak Nangpa, and Director of Administration Dechen Pema.  

Geshe Monlam understands concerns about inaccuracy and loss of control due to the rapid pace of AI development. He believes that the promise outweighs the potential problems, and that AI will benefit from the profound and well articulated altruistic principles pervasive in the Buddhist content that is being fed into the Large Language Models. In this way, the unique contribution of Tibetan AI is to train machine intelligence in the ethical framework of Buddhism, to benefit all beings.  

Commenting that AI technology has the potential to facilitate the use of Tibetan across educational, religious, and social applications, Geshe Monlam said he believes it will help to preserve and develop Tibetan cultural heritage. With the promotion and sharing of knowledge in mind as the ultimate purpose, he has a long term plan to establish a center for technological excellence and education in Bangalore. 

Before the visitors left, BDRC's Archives and Infrastructure Manager Jim Katz presented them with a hard drive containing thousands of texts from the BDRC archive that Geshe had requested to use to train his AI models. Geshe Monlam observed that just as rivers depend on the rain for their waters, so Buddhist wisdom depends on the precious texts for teachings and insights. He praised BDRC as the most reliable and extensive source for Tibetan texts in the world and noted the archive's vital role in training large language models. 

Jim commented that everyone who has ever been a part of Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center and Buddhist Digital Resource Center contributed to the creation of the hard drive, from our founder E. Gene Smith and his original supporters, to all the staff and donors over the past 25 years. It is truly the product of collective hard work, dedication, and generosity.  

Fortunately BDRC staff will have more than one opportunity to meet the Monlam team during their North American tour. Executive Director Jann Ronis will join Geshe Monlam when he visits another key partner in San Francisco, the MITRA project at Berkeley Artificial Intelligence Research (BAIR) Lab. MITRA's founder Professor Kurt Keutzer and its CTO Sebastian Nehrdich are researching machine translation for a number of low resource Buddhist languages, and MITRA is responsible for the training and deployment of the machine translation model on Monlam AI. As is usual with projects at this level, international cooperation from around the globe and funding from many sources are involved. 

We are grateful for the opportunity to support the groundbreaking work of Geshe Monlam and wish him successful and productive onward travels!

Revisit this April 2023 interview with Geshe Monlam to learn more about his inspirational life and work. 

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