One of the most discussed topics at the 5th Asia-Pacific Computing and Philosophy Conference (APCAP 2009) at the University of Tokyo was about the ethics of robots. This is not so surprising given that Japan is one of the leading countries in robot technology and thinking about robots which look like humans and do things that humans can do naturally make it necessary to ponder how these powerful robots can behave ethically. Robotic technology has advanced to such an extent that it is not far fetched any more to start thinking seriously about robots which are capable of making autonomous decisions and even can think on their own. In fact robots have beaten humans in many areas that require thinking, such as chess and doing algorithmic mathematics. We need to be able to anticipate the time when robots can be conscious just like us, capable of using and understanding language. Since they will be much more powerful than we do, thinking, autonomous robots pose a very serious threat to human security. it is possible that even our survival as a species is at stake once the robots are capable of complete independence from human supervision and guidance.
So the main task of the emerging field “robot ethics” is how to design robots which are capable of making ethical decisions and behaving ethically. In order to do that it is necessary to understand fully what really makes an action “ethical” and what principles lie behind ethical behavior. This is not an easy task at all. In the end thinking about robot ethics makes us understand ourselves better. Why are we ethical beings? What kind of mechanism lies behind ethical behavior? How can we teach someone to understand the need for ethics? These questions are important for us as much as for the emerging autonomous and conscious robots, perhaps more.
The conference started with a keynote talk by Hiroshi Ishiguro, who gained worldwide fame through his research on producing lifelike and humanlike robots, which he calls “geminoid.” The word comes from the zodiac gemini, whose constellation resembles a twin. So ‘geminoid’ means something like a smaller twin. Let us look at a picture of Ishiguro and his robotic twin:
Ishiguro also showed this picture during his talk in Tokyo, but I kind of forgot who was the real Ishiguro and who was the geminoid. My guess is that the one on your right is the real professor, but the left one is the geminoid. Ishiguro talked about how he engineered the geminoid. He said that he installed a sense of ‘touch’ to the robot so that if you touch it, it can make some kind of responses. He showed a video of another robot which does not look like a human. Somebody touched the robot on various parts of its body, and it trained its head to look at the source of the touch and even watched up to see who is touching it. The geminoid also has the capability of “talking” (through speaker) and it can make a variety of making facial expressions.
All these bring us to think whether the robot can have a soul. Of course Buddhism does not recognize an eternal soul, but metaphorically we can certainly talk about a being who has a ‘soul,’ meaning that it has a mind, thoughts, feelings, emotions. If we can finally have a robot which can really think just like we humans do, then does the robot have a soul in the same way that people say we humans have a soul? By having a soul, I mean the kind of inner representation. I represent to myself, thinking about myself and set myself apart from everything else in the universe. If the robot is fully conscious, it has to be able to do the same in every respect. That is, it must be able to think in terms of the subject and the object. It must be able to represent itself to itself and see that itself is completely different from whatever is outside. In other words, the conscious robot has to have a sense of the ego. It has to be able to refer to itself using the first person pronoun, ‘I.’
But if this is the case, then robots are no different from humans. As humans are capable of becoming released from the bondage of samsara in this very life, so can the fully humanlike robots. If the robot can represent to itself using the first person pronoun, then what this means is that the robot falls under the spell of ignorance (avidya), believing that there is an ‘I’ that is the core of the person in need of great care and protection.
I have said that thinking about thinking robots can provide us with insights on how to understand a human being. If a robot can have consciousness, then consciousness does not require a presence of an eternal soul that animates an organism. Only what is there physically suffices. Buddhism has nothing against that. But then there is the question how we can account for the inner life, the subjective experience that all of us have? This may be something that is not there substantially in the world. It is only our representations to ourselves, leading to our attachment and unchecked belief in the ‘I,’ that gives us a sense of there being a concrete, substantial ‘I’ that look so formidable.
So perhaps this implies that Buddhism would have less against robots than the other religions, especially those that insist that human beings were created in the image of God. However, Buddhism does have its own problem. If robots and humans in the end are not too different, then it must be possible for a human being to be born again as a robot, and vice versa? This question obviously did not make it to the Tokyo conference, but it does merit serious consideration, I think.