“Abandon your possessiveness.” Usually, this exhortation would have been ignored by 19-year-old Yuya Ohara, a student at Kyoto University. However, as this advice came from a Buddha avatar dwelling inside a smartphone, “I was more open-minded,” he told AFP. (The Hong Kong Standard) This software, appearing as a small Buddha sitting within real-life surroundings captured by the smartphone’s camera, is a dialogue and augmented reality (AR) system called Buddhabot, capable of answering questions of a spiritual nature.
In a development that the Asahi Shimbun calls “resembling something out of cyberpunk fiction,” the Buddhabot is being developed by an association of academic, religious, and corporate interests. The AI project is led by associate professor of Buddhist Studies Seiji Kumaji in consultation with Koshin Higashifushimi, deputy chief priest and head steward of the Tendai school’s Shoren-in Temple, and Toshikazu Furuya, CEO of Teraverse Co., Ltd. (Kokoro Research Centre)
Buddhabot is currently only used for research and testing and not yet available to the public. However, this month, Kyoto University completed the chatbot’s integration of visual and auditory elements. This new system of augmented reality is called “Tera Platform AR Ver1.0.” (Kokoro Research Centre) When it is released, people will be able to confide their worries in Buddhabot, which is programmed to respond with patterns based on the Buddhist scriptures it has learned in advance.
At present, the Buddhabot is outfitted with two of the oldest Theravada texts, the Sutta Nipata and the Dhammapada, but its creators want it to be updated with more Buddhist scriptures to “give more appropriate answers to users’ questions during test operations.” (The Asahi Shimbun) Presently, its answers are relatively basic as it only has two Buddhist texts in its system. In an earlier scenario reported by NHK, if asked, “I’m worried,” Buddhabot’s answer was, “By hard work and wisdom, you can get rid of the impurities in your heart.” When asked, “How can I become happy?”, Buddhabot replied, “By working hard and thinking carefully, true happiness can be obtained.” (NHK) Discrepancies between questions and answers were found at the outset last year, and there is a need to fine-tune the accuracy with which Buddhabot processes data. (The Mainichi) Faulty grammar and contextual errors can also render its answers incoherent. (The Hong Kong Standard)
The chatbot comes on the heels of the Teraverse, Kyoto University’s Institute for the Future of Human Society (IFOHS). This is Prof. Kumaji’s Buddhist answer to the “metaverse” championed by Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg. Buddhabot’s inception was announced earlier in March 2021 by Prof. Kumagai while studying scientific methods to address people’s unhappiness. (The Hong Kong Standard) Prof. Kumagi said, “I think Buddhism needs to regain its essence of teaching the way to happiness.” (The Asahi Shimbun) The researcher has also spoken about his concern that Buddhist leaders and institutions in Japan face major challenges, such as declining incomes for temple estates. However, the spike in suffering and anxiety in the face of burgeoning global crises and the coronavirus pandemic could also prove the usefulness of Buddhabot in maintaining Buddhism’s relevance amidst a waning in formal religious affiliations.
Like many intersections between science and religion, like the conversation between mindfulness and neuroscience, the creation of AI that can mimic or assimilate religious functions is fraught with philosophical difficulties. In the short-term, the priests of Shoren-in are confident that Buddhabot will not take their jobs just yet. “AI won’t rob us of our jobs,” said Koshin Higashifushimi, whose temple was instrumental in the Buddhabot’s creation. (The Asahi Shimbun) Yet given how Buddhabot’s purpose is expressly aimed at standing in for priests and answering questions from the troubled and unhappy, it would be a supreme irony truly befitting a cyberpunk novel if it did.
‘Hey Buddha’: Japan researchers create AI enlightenment tool (The Hong Kong Standard)
AI ‘Buddhabot’ unveiled in Kyoto dispenses advice to troubled souls (The Asahi Shimbun)
“Buddhabot,” An AI-Based Chatbot Developed by Associate Professor Seiji Kumagai et al., Has Been Featured on NHK News (Kokoro Research Centre)
スマホに仏像の姿 仏教の教えで悩みに答える対話型ＡＩ開発 (NHK)
Kyoto Univ. helps develop advice-dispensing AI ‘Buddhabot’ offering Buddhist perspective (The Mainichi)
Seiji Kumagai (Kyoto University)
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