AI and the Buddha

Last year, Google’s artificial intelligence (AI) program, “Alphago,” defeated South Korea’s 9-dan, 18-time world champion Lee Sedol four games to one in the game of “Go” (baduk).

Like the 1997 defeat of chess grand master Gary Kasparov by IBM’s “Deep Blue,” the match-up between AlphaGo and Lee Sedol was considered a watershed moment in AI development because no computer program had ever beat a high-level player like Sedol at Go and most AI experts said that it wouldn’t happen in this decade.

Although both AI “victories” were great for publicity they have caused concern about the future of humanity. Some are speculating that AI and automation will eliminate not only labor intensive factory jobs but white collar jobs as well, leading to widespread economic disruption and political instability. Westerners, in particular, highlight these negatives and also frequently reference films like The Terminator in which the global AI “SkyNet” learns at a “geometric” rate and decides to wipe out humanity. More recently, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has donated $10 million to the “Future of Life Institute” and warned that AI may get out of control, so we need to regulate its development. And noted British physicist Stephen Hawking has helped fuel hyperbolic tech headlines by warning that AI could “spell the end of the human race.”

In contrast to this western techno-angst, the Japanese have long held a more benign, almost cute, view of robots and AI. In Tokyo, you can go to noodle shops or hotels staffed by robots or talk with the emotional robot called “Pepper” at a mobile phone store. In the future robots may help the elderly, play with your children, or provide you with a domestic partner that you can legally marry like men have recently done in both China and Japan. But there is another possibility besides replacement or termination – there is the possibility of enlightenment. Since May is the traditional month to celebrate Buddha’s birthday, and Buddhism challenges us to think about our humanity, I will touch upon this tradition as a way to understand the AI revolution.

There are many popular concepts within Buddhism like Dharma, Karma, and Nirvana. But I want to focus on the term bhodi, which is often translated as “enlightenment” but is more accurately understood as “awakening.” One way of describing the process of reaching enlightenment is to imagine the mind as a lake. In the present world, many things happen to trouble the waters of this lake, creating waves in our mind that make it difficult to think and to see life clearly. One must learn to calm the waters of the mind. In some parts of the Buddhist tradition, this is achieved through meditation and the lifelong journey of “blowing out” of the mind all of the fictional desires and needs of modern life. When this starts to happen, the pure ring of a bell, dust floating in a ray of light, or water rippling on a pond takes on a greater existential meaning.

But what if you could skip the teachings, meditation and the life journey? What if you could download a smartphone app that is already ‘awakened’ and free from greed, hate, or delusion and have it right in your pocket (with a monthly data plan, of course)? What if AI could bring us the reincarnated Buddha in silicon form, giving us instant Bhodi, just like we have instant noodles?

I think it’s possible, but some perspective is needed. Currently, aspects of AI are used for speech recognition, self driving cars, medical analysis, facial recognition, weather forecasting, data processing, and stock trading. If you have used GPS, Google, Apple’s Siri, or Amazon’s Echo-Alexa, then you have already used AI in your everyday life. But none of these things are genuinely “intelligent”; they are just small slices of what the mind does. The human brain has close to 100 billion neurons, so exact replication is currently impossible, and saying that computers “think” is like stating a jet can fly the same as a bird.

Presently, artificial intelligence is not really intelligence at all but more accurately described as hyper-niche-computation. One could even argue that AlphaGo technically did not “win” because Sedol can drink water, reproduce, and adapt to his environment without a team of Google engineers managing his hardware. Additionally Sedol’s brain only uses about 20 watts of power; by some estimates, AlphaGo consumed 1,000,000 watts of power. And according to tech blogs like “Cevas Experts” and “Jacques Mattheij,” AlphaGo required more than 1200 CPUs, 170 GPUs, and 100 scientists to run it. It was less a competition and more of a Google “Deep Mind” marketing event. If Lee Sedol had played 10 games with a team of 100 top Go players in a back room to assist him then the outcome would have been different.

But, however primitive modern AI currently is, experts like Musk, Hawking, and Bill Gates say it will only be a matter of time(estimates range from 15 to 50 years) before we develop a super-intelligence that is capable of surpassing human-level thought. And this brings us back to the possibility of instant bhodi. Although companies are investing billions of dollars in commercial research to create new products, someone could still eventually develop a pocket-size silicon Buddha that would in theory accelerate human enlightenment.

Like Siri or Alexa, you could have it in your phone, home, or car and it would respond to your voice. You could instantly request ancient sutras or ask questions like “What is true compassion?” and “What is consciousness?”. Far from creating an apocalypse, the future development of AI could actually help us be better human beings by giving us instant access to a pure mind.

But, then again, maybe there is something more to intelligence than pure logic and super computation. If it’s true that we evolved (or were created), then there must be a specific reason that we have bodies that feel pain and joy in the physical world. Maybe the Achilles heel of AI is that it will never have a body suited to our environment, so it can never truly be equal with us and thus never provide humanity with ultimate wisdom. Maybe the invention of AI will show us that people are irreplaceable after all. That it’s good to be human. This would be very enlightening.

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