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Right View in Systems Design


Integrating and balancing scientific and technological progress with wisdom is becoming increasingly critical to achieving integral reliable systems, however in the majority of cases, even human intelligence in all its capacity is still generally limited in its ability to understand itself, its causes, its dynamics, and extent—especially when it comes to understanding how our thinking impacts and shapes the world around us.

Humanity has managed to reach a high point of technological and scientific progress by developing powerful artificial intelligence systems, yet still somewhat avoiding the notion of mind. Such a shortfall, however, is starting to show: even the most reliable engineered technologies can be vulnerable to manipulation and failure, not because of technical problems but due to human error and unexpected interactions and behaviors. 

Typically, the study of intelligence, the mind, and consciousness has never been a concern for science and technology, but left to philosophy and epistemology. This is finally starting to change. In particular, the evolution of engineered artificial highly intelligent systems, with all the implications and possible consequences, requires consideration for the less tangible aspects of intelligence engineering, such as systems logic and the processes that embed logical functions.

In my introductory article for this column,* I make the case for the convergence of systems engineering and mindfulness, in particular embedding core Dharma values in the practice of systems development. However, the fact is that is not accomplished: if well-meaning humans cannot manage to understand and interpret—let alone apply correctly—the Dharma, how can we even envisage embedding such values in our engineered systems?

Established practitioners (those said to have “entered the stream”) have a way of looking at reality that adheres to what was expounded in the Buddhadharma, which itself is not clear cut, and many challenges associated with understanding and interpreting the doctrine of the right path remain.** This article briefly summarises the notion of Right View as held in the Dharma, and presents the notion of views and viewpoints as adopted in information technology and concludes by pointing toward a possible synergy between the two.

Right View in the Buddhadharma

The first principle of the Noble Eightfold Path is Right View, the basis (Pali: pubbangama) that gives direction and efficacy to the other seven elements. In simple terms, it can be said that Right View is essentially understanding the Four Noble Truths. Knowledge with regard to suffering, knowledge with regard to the origination of suffering, knowledge with regard to the cessation of suffering, and knowledge with regard to the practice leading to the cessation of suffering. 

As an oversimplification perhaps, Right View consists of understanding that everything—what we live, experience, and know—is pretty much in the mind and the result of karma, and the mind is obscured by defilements, which separate us from perfect knowledge, which is happiness. With this understanding, therefore, only compassion toward all sentient beings and awareness that our reality is limited by our ego and its defilements can help us achieve happiness and appreciate the great perfection of existence.

For one of Right View, bhikkhus, Right Intention springs up. For one of Right Intention, Right Speech springs up. For one of Right Speech, Right Action springs up. For one of Right Action, Right Livelihood springs up. For one of Right Livelihood, Right Effort springs up. For one of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness springs up. For one of Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration springs up. For one of Right Concentration, Right Knowledge springs up. For one of Right Knowledge, Right Deliverance springs up. (Anguttara Nikaya 10:121)

Our individual and collective experiences of life and the universe depend on our ability to understand the true nature of everything, and through our intentions and behaviors we establish our place and become part of this responsive picture.

Views in systems

In the practice of technology design and engineering, different notions of views are applied to support system development. For example, in databases, which constitute the heart of most digital information software and electronic applications, views are considered dynamic outcomes defined by “queries”—a set of logically constructed search keywords, combining data and search results from two or more tables, or can be constrained to focus on a specified subset of the whole database. 

Technology standards—as developed and published by standardization bodies such as IEEE,*** use concepts of views and viewpoints. In a classic simplification, consider an aviation system in which two different stakeholders, pilot and air traffic controller, have two different views of the system. Neither view represents the whole system, because the perspective of each stakeholder constrains (and reduces) how each sees the overall system. The view of the pilot comprises some elements not viewed by the controller, such as passengers and fuel, while the view of the controller comprises some elements not viewed by the pilot, such as other aircraft. There are also elements shared between the views, such as the communication model between the pilot and the controller, and the vital information about the aircraft itself.

In systems design, a viewpoint is a model (or description) of the information contained in a view. Each viewpoint is an abstract model of how all the stakeholders of a particular type—all pilots, or all controllers—view the airport system. Similar modeling techniques that adopt views and viewpoints are used throughout engineering and computer design.

How to use views to deliver systems awareness

Both the Dharma and information technology make use of the notion of view, which can be considered “a way of looking at the world.” There are similarities and complementarities of the two uses to be researched further. It may even be possible to integrate view-based modeling techniques with Dharma principles.

First, given that information systems and the digital environment influence and even control our individual and collective realities, through the adoption of personal electronic devices and embedded intelligence, it might be helpful if artificial systems could support an enlightened view of the world: one that considers the wellbeing and happiness of the other beings with whom we interact  (physically, geographically, and digitally), and trigger constructive behaviors and virtuous cycles of co-evolution. 

When we become aware that our thoughts and actions generate visible and invisible consequences, the effects of which ripple across the universe, we become inherently more responsible and mindful—that is, attentive to the processes and emotions that enter our mindstream—and try to work out ways of keeping our thoughts and actions as constructive and as positive as possible. Similarly, when we build intelligent software systems and devices, we should aim to construct and support “enlightened” views. Although from a Buddhist perspective, an enlightened view is based on the Four Noble Truths, any view based on empathy, compassion, and kindness can be said to be enlightened.

This is true when applied to information systems—news and media that inform and educate rather than misinform and propagate partial views, as well as to any other intelligent automated system that influences and impacts human behavior: when pressing this button, this and this and this consequence may occur. Therefore, it is important to have increased awareness of compassion as well as of the consequences of one’s thoughts and actions when designing and engineering technological systems.

I would like to invite readers to offer examples of how technology such as social media can be used to inflict suffering or how it can be used in an enlightened way in the comments section below this article.

Towards Dharma-driven Systems Awareness (Buddhistdoor)

** Against the view that the Pure Land Sutras are not Shakyamuni’s teaching, but a later invention (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

*** An introduction to the IBM Views and Viewpoints Framework for IT systems (IBM)

See more

The Discourse on Right View: The Sammaditthi Sutta and its Commentary (Access to Insight)

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