Applying Buddhism to AI
February 15, 2021
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by Snigdh Baunthiyal

Artificial Intelligence is taking over numerous fields and with that, there’s one major growing concern. Around their ethics and functionality. Will robots eventually take over the world leading us all to a dystopian high functioning future?

As incredulous it might sound, hope and fear carry the same weight around technology, and with Artificial Intelligence’s use in healthcare, defense, financial services, and many other areas, there is a growing call to focus on the ethics around its functioning. These machines are fast developing the cognitive abilities of human beings, but what about compassion and empathy? An AI Ethics global inventory does exist, but most of these guidelines are inherently North American in nature, which focus more on autonomy. 

How does Buddhism relate to AI?

Comparing the ethics of Buddhism with that of AI is particularly interesting because Buddhism’s central message is to lessen suffering, and cause no harm. Any action which lessens pain is good. Machines run using algorithms and while they might arrive at the most practical and cost-effective approach, there is no guarantee that their decisions will not cause any harm. Black and white decisions are no problem, it’s when the boundaries are blurred that these machines need to be trained.  And for this, it’s the designers who will have to understand the meaning of pain and suffering and how these machines can work around the concept. So, it’s not just a technological intervention but also a human one.

Take the example of ‘Teka’ Microsoft’s AI chatbot, Tay which was introduced on Twitter in 2016. Its functionality depended on learning from other Twitter users. Reading, scanning tweets, analyzing popular trends, and so on. In a couple of hours, the chatbox had learned racist slurs and propaganda. It was shut within hours for obvious reasons. So, when machines can’t be trusted with good judgment, what does this say about the ethics around their functioning? It is humans who develop and design these machines after all. 

Compassionate designers make compassionate machines

Many believe that humans will inherently forward their bias to machines. Facial recognition software is known to be gender-biased. Recent software meant to recognise people wearing masks has been shown to have a racial bias. Machines are an extension of our thoughts, so till we don’t consciously understand the value we want to cultivate while using these machines, the mistrust around Artificial Intelligence will only grow. 

While scientists have continuously maintained that Artificial Intelligence cannot develop itself to be smarter than human beings and eventually control (the plot of many movies these days), many machines have been known to malfunction and cause harm. AI works by constantly using data to update its facilities. Think of Facebook, the way its constantly monitoring user behavior to curate their feeds and advertisements. 

So, what does this then say about consciousness? It is what separates machines from humans. Will AI one day be capable of developing consciousness and making ethical and compassion-based decisions and not purely intellectually driven ones? After all, impermanence is another one of Buddhism’s teachings.

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