Matthew Moore on Buddhism, Meditating Machines, & the Robopocalypse
Date: June 18th, 2017

Can robots meditate? What are the benefits and dangers of artificial intelligence (AI), whole brain emulation (WBE), and other forms of “near-future technologies” (NFTs)?  Should humans proceed towards “The Singularity”?  And what enlightenment can Buddhism shed on these questions?  In one of our most interesting and futuristic interviews ever on this podcast, Prof. Matthew Moore, an associate professor of political science at Cal Poly – San Luis Obispo,  returns our program and answers these provocative questions.  It sounds like science fiction, but it is quickly becoming science fact, and Prof. Moore makes a strong case that philosophy and theology needs to be part of the conversation regarding technological advancement.

We begin the conversation with a review of “near-future technologies,” which may be near in the future, but then again they may not.  Such technologies include self-replicating nanobots that can cure disease, “strong AI” (defined by having self-awareness as compared to Roombas), and WBE wherein human individuals upload their consciousness into a machine (as represented by Ray Kurzweil’s “singularity”).  We review the benefits of such technology, including the ability to cure diseases, expand our knowledge, and perhaps preserve our species in the cosmos.  Of course, there are downsides as well, and Tony starts to recall his time watching dystopian science fiction movies in the 1970s.  The less-than-attractive elements of NFTs include our loss of control over these machines — what Prof. Moore refers to as the Robopocalypse — as well as issues of unemployment and inequality, as these technologies are likely to have disparate benefits for some humans but not others.

We turn then to what Buddhism can do to shed light on how we understand and manage NFTs, beginning with the probing question of whether robots can meditate (with the example of Robo-Tony used to illustrate). This discussion takes us down the path of what it means to be aware, as well as how we come to understand and deal with suffering.  Prof. Moore talks about Nick Bostrom’s work on the topic and reveals an important deontological ethic that makes AI very different from us humans — whereas humans cannot reprogram their moral consciousness, robots can.  Matt then asks three important questions from a Buddhist perspective as related to NFTs: 1) Why are we developing them?; 2) Can Buddhism help clarify what is at stake with these technologies?; and 3) What kind of relationship will we have with NFTs?  The first question prompts a discussion of how Buddhist deal with suffering.  Whereas most philosophies argue that one must either accept suffering or try to change the world in which it occurs, Buddhism provides a third option wherein one changes one’s mind as to the role of suffering.  We talk about how NFTs can reduce certain types of suffering — such as diseases that have potential cures — but there other forms of suffering offer more difficult possibilities, such as “can we suffer by not knowing something that is knowable”?  This helps inform the answers to the other questions that are posed.  Fearing the downsides of a Robopocalypse, can humans be willing to endure the suffering of not realizing the upsides of NFTs left undeveloped?  Matt covers a number of policy responses to NFTs that all of this thought provides:  1) We embrace NFTs and hope everything works out; 2) We emphasize the good aspects of NFTs and try to avoid the bad; or 3) We do not develop them even though they are within the realm of our technological possibility.  Prof. Moore leaves off with some of his thoughts as to what he thinks we should do.  Recorded: May 19, 2017.



Prof. Matthew Moore’s bio at the Department of Political Science at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

Buddhism and Political Theory, by Prof. Matthew Moore.

Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, by Nick Bostrom (mentioned in podcast).

Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics (mentioned in podcast).


Matthew Moore on Buddhism and Political Theory.

Nancy Ellen Abrams on Spirituality & Science.

Stephen Barr on Quantum Physics, Religion, & the God Particle.

Rob Moll on Religion and the Brain.

2 Responses to “Matthew Moore on Buddhism, Meditating Machines, & the Robopocalypse”

  1. […] Matthew Moore on Buddhism, Meditating Machines, and the Robopocalypse. […]

  2. […] Matt Moore on Buddhism and the Robopocalypse. […]

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