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Further Reflections on Technology and the Buddhist Teachings

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At a recent symposium on the topic of privacy and social cohesion in relation to Humane Artificial Intelligence (AI), one of key potential threats to human flourishing discussed was the encroachment of technology into every aspect of life, to the extent that we humans may lose our ability to choose, free from the manipulations of technology. Approaching the topic from a Buddhist perspective, I attempt here to dissect these challenges as viewed through the fundamental teachings of impermanence, non-self, and the cessation of suffering through the Four Noble Truths. 

The first fundamental Buddhist teaching on impermanence explains that there is no unchanging real existence. I think that this belongs to the theory of knowledge (epistemology), establishing our understanding of the phenomenal world. A significant insight from this understanding is that all phenomenal existences are subject to change—over shorter or longer periods of time. The stability and sustainability we aim to achieved with regard to objects, people, ecosystems, thoughts, and so on, are dependent on the conditions supporting them. Materials as strong as concrete may have a lifespan of 40–60 years, depending on its own conditions and those of the environment. Similarly, the advent of technology may seem inevitable, but it is also conditioned on the availability of stable networks, electricity supply, and human choices. Our concepts, views, and opinions are also condition-dependent, fungible, and hence also manipulable. Ideas which are so unshakable may be proven right or wrong because of new evidence. Sustainability does not mean that living species, ideas, and values never change; it means giving sufficient conditions to sustain and evolve without losing essence over time.

The second fundamental Buddhist teaching of non-self means that our identities are also constructs. This belongs to the theory of existence (ontology). We might have many different roles and identities: we may be tough and mean at work while kind and gentle at home. We could be promoting new innovations while preserving old traditions. We may have multiple and conflicting responsibilities. We may try to present certain personas as key opinion leaders while behaving completely differently in private. The Buddhist teaching is that these different roles and identities are integral parts of who we are. If they are coherent, you are coherent. If they are in confrontation, your well-being will also be in conflict. Another important Buddhist insight is that the dots and lines are inseparable—the leaders are inseparable from the followers, the bodhisattvas are inseparable from sentient beings. They are interdependent. From this perspective, a leader can understand their roles within an organization as a significant driver but also as an inseparable part of the collective—instead of being the savior or king of the universe. This is also the reason why some “slashers”—people working within multiple disciplines—can offer great vision while others are simply disoriented. The difference depends on whether they can “connect the dots” and develop good synergies across different fields.

The third fundamental Buddhist teaching on the cessation of suffering offers a deep understanding of human predicaments and a path to their resolution. It can be attributable to the theory of “salvation” (soteriology). The key insight of the Four Noble Truth suggests that we need to develop a deep understanding of the nature of suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and ultimately the path leading to the cessation of suffering. This is building on a transcendental theory of knowledge and existence. In plain English, it suggests that we are under stress because we do not really understand ourselves (how our minds and bodies operate, how our mental and bodily behaviors arise—not to mention the minds and physical actions of others). We are also often bewildered by our own identities or those of others. Such a lack of understanding of ourselves, others, and rest of existence are the sources of our suffering. Salvation or happiness, from the Buddhist perspective, is possible through the cultivation of a transcendent level of thought and physical behavior. Happiness, according to the Buddhist teachings, is therefore an inside-out instead of outside-in process, i.e., you cannot be truly happy by consuming more, owning more, or achieving more. Our smartphones may bring us stimulation and provide an enormous platform for ego-building, but they cannot fill the equally infinite void in our mind. We are indeed a mouse on a wheel chasing after more “likes”, “follows,” and “shares” on the internet. On the other hand, negative feedback going viral can easily devastate us.

Photo by Michael Dziedzic

The threat of AI is that it is very good at collecting, analyzing, and responding to data. It can predict our desires based on our daily habits and relentlessly feed us more. Of course, we can program the AI so that it knows what we should do instead of what we want. But deciding what we should think or do demands great human wisdom and insight. For example, the AI could pick up your websearch on candies and make suggestions for different types of candy through various hints and suggestions. It may think that this is what you desire and deserve. Humans, however, can program the AI to be health-conscious and block these suggestions for those with diabetes. The important question is: who should have the right to determine what is good for you? Who is eligible to decide? It involves some deep value and moral considerations.

Unlike the previous AI symposium, the participants this year were well-represented by scholars and practitioners, not only from different disciplines but also from different parts of the world. Representatives from developing countries shared unique insights on AI from their cultural and ethnical backgrounds. While representatives from developed countries shared more concern about the power of AI and whether it will be subject to human control and instrumental use, developing countries are more concerned about how AI will change relationships among people, local culture, traditions, society, the environment, and so on. Perhaps this difference also resonates with the emphasis from developed countries on market mechanisms that put more focus on transactions instead of relationships. In the context of a recent surge in interest in diversity, equality, and inclusion, as well as land acknowledgement, perhaps we could better cherish the conditions leading to who we are and contribute to human flourishing by applying AI and other technology so as not to maximize profit but to maximize human well-being, building a sangha of wisdom, compassion, and moral discipline.

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