June 15, 2010

The Singularity and Buddhism

The New York Times published an article a few days ago about the Singularity—a time in the future when a superior intelligence dominates and life becomes something so different that we can't predict what shape it will take or understand it from our current, limited perspective.

Ashlee Vance writes:

At that point, the Singularity holds, human beings and machines will so effortlessly and elegantly merge that poor health, the ravages of old age and even death itself will all be things of the past.

Some of Silicon Valley’s smartest and wealthiest people have embraced the Singularity. They believe that technology may be the only way to solve the world’s ills, while also allowing people to seize control of the evolutionary process. For those who haven’t noticed, the Valley’s most-celebrated company — Google — works daily on building a giant brain that harnesses the thinking power of humans in order to surpass the thinking power of humans.

All this transhumanist talk reminds me of the James Hughes Tricycle interview with Richard Eskow "Cyborg Buddha," blogged about previously here. To me, the idea of further merging with technology to transcend human limitations feels somehow inauthentic—but it's hard to pinpoint exactly where to draw the line. On the "authenticity" question, Hughes argues that Buddhist thought is in line with a technologically advanced future:

Buddhism rejects the notion of “authenticity.” The core idea of anatta is that there is no permanent and abiding or “authentic” self. There is only change and your own conscious process of self-creation. The Abrahamic faiths believe in a soul, which is carried into secular ideas of “authentic self.” But Buddhism doesn’t.

A lot of people don’t want to take psychiatric medications because they don’t think they are “themselves” on drugs. But when we talk to people who have severe depression or ADD, many of them say, “I’m not my true self until I take the drug.” A Buddhist perspective might be “Well, I’m glad you feel that way, but in fact you’re not your ‘true self’ either time.”

Read the rest here.

Read The New York Times piece here.

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Becoming Robots « Dream of the Dragon's picture

[...] tangible suffering will people no longer feel the need to transcend? The good people at Tricycle raise questions about the Singularity [...]

Tom's picture

@Kenneth I don't agree with your timetable on computer implants (21st-22nd century). I believe that the human brain is widely unable to interface with computers in the way you suggest.
Explanation: While we have not much knowledge of how it works exactly, scientists at my former University have discovered, that the process of "thinking" consists of a number of distinct phases, that they have monitored and analyzed. To a certain point we now have an idea of how brain cells team up to execute an incoming request.
However I'm afraid I must say, the project was terminated, as nobody showed interest in it, believing that there was no money to be made.
If my interpretation of the identified phases of the process is correct, we cannot just punch a computer into such a process, due to restrictions in it's protocol of communication, which prevent it from integrating in the process carried out by regular brain cells. It is so fundamental that we won't be able to fix that for a very long time from now.
Instead I would expect us to see nano particles and very simple nano machines that may help reduce risk of Atherosclerosis, Alzheimer's disease aso. in the next 100-200 years.
Still: I agree with the other things you said.

Kenneth Elder's picture

The assumption with the cyborg enthusiasts that some unity beyond what has been achieved by individual humans will be achieved by joining the human brain with futuristic intelligent computers is false. Buddha and the Arahat disciples attained the highest levels of consciousness with concentration meditation and then with the unique insight vipassana meditation taught by Buddha they attained the Ultimate Timeless Infinite Reality of Nirvana. There have been Arahats in the last two centuries who had mastery over intuitive psychic powers and mastery of intuitive wisdom of that beyond all the levels of consciousness, Nirvana. These Arahat’s minds ranged throughout time and space over thousands of Big Bang oscillations of the universe and beyond all time and space to the final Great Mystery beyond the Void. No computer will ever be able to do that. My visions of my probable next 21st-22nd century lifetime in Maryland show that people will have a small computer implant at the base of the brain which will have many potential uses and misuses. This implant will at least somewhat hinder the attainment of concentration above the 1st jhana. The 1st jhana or 1st level samadhi is the first level of super absorbed concentration but it still has a concentrated form of discursive thought whether verbal or non-verbal. But the 2nd jhana is beyond discursive cognition. Thus I am saying the opposite of these computer enthusiasts. But the computer implant will be no barrier to vipassana meditation since Nirvana is attained from the moderate concentration level of access concentration in vipassana where there is just scattered fading out part of subtle waves of thought consciousness in the silent void. The Stream-enterer or Once-returner levels of attaining Nirvana do not require mastery of higher concentration.

links for 2010-06-15 « Brain Music – Gadgets, Neuroscience &'s picture

[...] Tricycle » The Singularity and Buddhism (tags: singularity buddhism mindfulness) [...]

Tom's picture

I believe it has been in the media before. Whatever the consequence of this would be - we will not live to see it.
Every once in a while someone comes up with a story that they are very "close" - just to be never heard of again. However it's becoming quite clear that we are still several hundred years away from getting to that point.
Instead I prefer to stick to the idea, that nothing can be lost that hasn't been lost before. We can't die because we already did. How many cells, that you had on the day of your birth, are still alive in your body - apart from the stem cells, probably none. If so, what is this "you" anyway. If it's not your leg, not your arm, not even your head ... than it's probably just an idea - a thought. Thoughts never die. They are just a configuration of circumstances, which are reincarnated and repeated over and over again in various creatures without anyone ever noticing.
This means we are not just a "body", but instead parts of "us" echo through every creature on this planet - just like waves. These waves have met in this specific configuration that is "you" before and they will meet in that configuration again someday. While we don't know when, we know they will. You don't even have to "believe" in reincarnation - just believe in statistics.
Remember where we stand. This is not just a place - we stand on the ashes of those who walked and worked here before us. Look around and you will see the results of their efforts everywhere. None of this would exist without them. If so, how could anyone say that they are gone? If we feel like they did, share the same thoughts, ask the same questions, share the same configuration of circumstances. Are "we" "them"? Well: that's the question nobody will ever be able to answer. Technically "yes", but if you believe in an unique soul then "no". It's not a matter of facts but a matter of how you define "existence". Definitions are never wrong. So there is one truth for every single person on this planet.
Meaning that no religion can ever be wrong or right. Well unless you believe in a final truth of course. But here again math will help you out: as it concludes that every system, that is able to fully describe itself, must include it's own contradiction. Otherwise the description would not be final and complete. (As a complete description must include a description of itself ... which means that it is recursive and thus self-conflicting)
In real life this means you will never be able to proof the existence or non-existence of a "god" whatsoever. Because to proof it, you have to define it. When you define something that "created" the whole universe, it must include the description of this universe. But now: either it created itself too - which can't be. Or there must be something else that created "god" - which can't be either. Now this means: either you succeed - then your definition can instantly be falsified. Or you fail, which results in failing to proof it's existence.
As you see from that, words like "god" or "soul" are constructs without an inherent meaning. So the question if "god" exists is irrelevant. As it is just a construct and subject to your definition. If you define it exists, than it exists. If you decide otherwise, it doesn't. The only other way would be to define it as a living entity of some sort. But by doing so you bind it to the restrictions of this universe, instantly resulting in the fact, that it is not almighty. (Which may mean that this is not what you suppose it to be like)
This should help you understand that there is no final truth at all. Religions are neither right nor wrong and there is no such thing as a "best" religion for all. Instead it suggests that "truth" is a recursive meta-system ... or in other words: truth is what you make of it. There is not "one" truth, but many.
Knowing that tells you that no life - may it be eternal - would ever be better or happier than yours can be. Because there is no final goal or light at the end of the tunnel that you could go for and would magically make you happier once you reach it.
If you wish to be happy, than it's all up to you. All this thinking leads you to a conclusion (with which you may or may not agree) - happiness is basically not a consequence of circumstances, but a decision. Decide wisely.

Randall's picture

Interesting- but I would say that the authentic self is the self that no longer reaches for certainty but instead embraces the insubstantial flow in all things.

Andre's picture

There will only be more suffering caused by those who will not be able to afford this new reality. Not to mention all the suffering caused by our new cyborg overlords...

Mark O'Leary's picture

The idea of the Singularity is interesting, but it seems like just another cause of dukkha.