Thursday, March 30, 2023

What Buddhism Can Do for AI Ethics

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The peoples of the East and West must share their ideas and consider those of others to enrich their own perspectives. Because the development and use of AI spans the entire world, how we think about it needs to be informed by all major intellectual traditions.

With that in mind, I believe ideas from Buddhist teaching could benefit anyone working on AI ethics anywhere in the world, and not just in traditionally Buddhist cultures (which are found primarily in the East and primarily in Southeast Asia).

Buddhism offers a way of thinking about ethics based on the assumption that all sentient beings want to avoid pain. Thus, the Buddha teaches that an action is good if it leads to liberation from suffering.

The implication of this teaching for artificial intelligence is that any ethical use of AI must aim to reduce pain and suffering. In other words, for example, facial recognition technology should only be used if it can be shown to reduce suffering or promote well-being. Additionally, the goal should be to reduce suffering for everyone, not just those who directly interact with AI.

We can of course interpret this goal broadly to include correcting an unsatisfactory system or process or changing a situation for the better. Use technology to discriminate against people or to monitor and repress them, would be clearly unethical. Where there are gray areas or the nature of the impact is unclear, the burden of proof falls on those seeking to show that a particular application of AI is not causing harm.

Do no harm

A Buddhist-inspired AI ethic would also understand that living by these principles requires a cultivation of oneself. This means that those involved in AI need to train constantly to move closer to the goal of eliminating suffering altogether. Achieving the goal is not that important; what is important is that they undertake the practice to achieve this. It’s the practice that counts.

Designers and programmers should practice recognizing this goal and defining the specific steps their work would take to make their product embody the ideal. In other words, the AI ​​they produce must be aimed at helping the public eliminate suffering and promote well-being.

For all of this to be possible, businesses and government agencies that develop or use AI must be held accountable to the public. Accountability is also a Buddhist teaching, and in the context of AI ethics, it requires effective legal and political mechanisms as well as judicial independence. These components are essential for any ethical AI guideline to work as intended.


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