Last week my son Ken and I went to see a play at the Faculty. This is the first time I took my son to a drama performance. The play was an unusual one in that there was a robot acting as one of the main characters. Yes a real robot.

The title of the play was “Sa-yo-na-ra” which is Japanese for “good-bye” and it is a story of a conversation between a young girl who is suffering from a terminal illness and an android robot. The show was sponsored by the Japan Foundation and there is a news story here. The robot was designed in the play to talk and interact verbally with humans, especially those who suffer from these illnesses. Presumably these patients need someone to talk to and to cheer them up, so a robot was designed for this purpose. (As to the reason why a human being was not needed to talk to the patients, I don’t know. Perhaps a robot is a better talker?)

So the play centers around these two characters. The android, who I learned later was named “Geminoid” because she was purposely built as an exact replica of an existing woman, knows a lot of poetry in her memory and can recite any of them on command. The suffering girl asks the robot to recite some poems and they exchange viewpoints about them. The robot recites a Japanese poem and a German poem and discusses the differences among the two.

The picture you see on your left is the robot. She can blink her eyes, nod and move her lips. But she can’t talk on her own, so when she talks during the play there has to be someone behind the scene to do it, just like in the old days where there was a talker behind a marionette play. However, the android was programmed in such a way that she autonomously moves her head and blink her eyes when she talks. Watching the play, one almost lost the sense that the suffering girl was talking to a robot or a machine. The understanding that the robot displays about the poems she is reciting and the lifelike way she behaves did result in myself suspending the belief for a time that there was a robot on stage. The audience, I think, lost this sense for some time, totally sympathizing with the suffering girl and with the android herself.

This raises a profound question in both philosophy and spirituality. In what sense do we suspend our beliefs in robots and actually become immersed in the play? Even though the voice was from a real human being, the performance of Geminoid, her looks, her eyes and her hand movements and so on, did convince me unconsciously that she was a real human being. When she said to the suffering girl that she was an android and that some of her kind were destroyed by the humans the audience sympathized with her quite a great deal. How could this delicate creature be destroyed in cold blood? We can think of someone destroying, throwing away old fridges and the like, but we do not feel the same way with Geminoid. She is not something to be destroyed because she displays some very human characteristics.

So the question in philosophy is: Does Geminoid have a mind? The answer, of course, is no because Geminoid has been developed specifically for performing on stage. She can’t stand up or walk around. She can only sit and blink her eyes and nod. But are these relevant for having mind? Not really. She cannot talk, but the most important thing is that she can “convince” us in the same way as an actor can convince us that he is Romeo courting Juliet, and so on. This is no small feat. But we can’t help thinking that, if the development for androids such as Geminoid were to go on further and further, there might be a time when a robot and a human become indistinguishable. If that is the case, then should we say that a robot actually does have a right? If the robot or the android (I am using the two terms interchangeably here) were to be totally indistinguishable from humans, then are they really humans? According to Leibniz’s Law, if two things are totally indistinguishable, then they are one and the same. We don’t need to go that far; we can only say that if they are indistinguishable, then they are of one and the same kind. This is more than enough.

But is the android conscious? Well, we still have the problem of being absolutely certain whether someone next to us is conscious or not, or whether they are zombies. Perhaps we can come closer and look closer into Geminoid’s eyes, then we can decide.

As for spirituality, the question is whether Geminoid has a soul, spark of life that is given by God perhaps. Here Buddhism does not have much of a problem. If Geminoid is indistinguishable from us, then she will be subject to the law of karma and other things that befall us humans too. She will have to be born again and it is conceivable that someone will have to be born as an android. This may be either good or bad karmas depending on the quality of life of this or that particular android. But this would mean that the android would have to be “sentient.” He or she needs to be capable of feeling pain and pleasure. But if the androids are totally indistinguishable from us, then they have to be able to feel pain. Then the androids will know what suffering is. And if they have cognitive powers, they can develop themselves so that they can come to understand the underlying nature of things. They can practice meditation and realize finally that all things are empty of their inherent nature. In a word, an android can, eventually, become a Buddha.


Journey of Life and Mind

Public Talks on “Journey of Life and Mind”


The foundation invites the general public to attend  a conference/seminar on “Journey of Life and Mind” at Room 105 Mahachulalongkorn Building, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok.

There will be two public talks by Latri Khenpo Geshe Nyima Dakpa Rinpoche on “Samsara…Journey of Life and Mind” and “Life’s Last Journey”. There will also be an introduction of Rinpoche’s book “Opening the Door to Bon” in the occasion of  its being translated into Thai.


Program of Rinpoche’s Talks in English (with Thai translations)

Saturday 11 February 2012

9.10-10.15 hrs: Samsara…Journey of Life and Mind

10.15-10.30 hrs: Refreshments

10.30-11.30 hrs: Opening the Door to Bon. An introduction to Tibetan ancient wisdom

Sunday 12 February 2012

13.00-14.30 hrs: Life’s Last Journey

14.30-15.00 hrs: Refreshments

15.00-16.00 hrs: Discussion

For registration, please email us at There are no registration fees. Donation to support the activities are welcome.


Moral Robots?

One of the interesting things that emerged from the two conferences (SPT2011 and CEPE2011) I attended in the US in late May was that there were a lot of talks and discussions on “moral” or “ethical” robots. For those of you who are not in the know, robots now are much more sophisticated and much more advanced. The US military has been developing “killer robots” for some time now and it is common practice now for the military to send unmanned airplanes to target and bomb their enemy positions. Development of soldier robots is also in the making. The idea is to develop robots which can function much like a soldier, and in combat with the enemy the robot can of course shoot and kill. Quite a terrifying aspect.

Robots are not only being developed to shoot and kill. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are robots that act as companions for those who need them but cannot find one with flesh and blood. Robots are now replacing humans as companions or the elderly in nursing homes. At least this is happening in the West. Instead of having human companions, the elderly (and in fact not only them) are being provided with “companion robots” which look like either humans or cute pets, and are supposed to be tender and gentle. We can certainly imagine human-look-alikes that can talk and show (semblances of) emotions on their faces in nursing homes, providing the elderly with round-the-clock care and attention, much more readily that a human ever could.

These situations call for ethical reflection. A question that was raised during the discussion on caregiving robots was: What does this signify about our own situation? If we are to give our parents and grandparents caregiving robots, what does this tell us about ourselves? But there was another question. Imperfect as the robots are, they are still better than nothing. That is, if there is no one around to care for the elderly, then at least the robots can fill in the void.

I have written many months ago that a Japanese professor had already developed a robot replica of himself. He also created a robot girl that looked uncannily similar to a real girl. This of course gives rise to the topic of robot sex. Many have taken up this topic and discuss whether it is good or bad for a human being to have a robot as their companion and sexual partner. Does having sex with a robot essentially the same as masturbation, or is it in the same league as having sex with a real human partner?

This may depend on whether robots can be self aware and conscious. They are not capable of doing that now, or so it seems, but the harder problem is that we humans do not even have complete understanding of our own self-consciousness. We are still debating on what it actually is, and according to the Churchlands we are essentially deluding ourselves when we think that there is actually such a thing as self-consciousness, or consciousness for that matter. But if the Churchlands are right, then we are also deluding ourselves when we ask of robots whether they can be self aware or not. They can’t, because even we ourselves cannot, and in fact no being ever could.

Even if the Churchlands are wrong, we still have problems explaining self consciousness, so presumably we would have problems explaining why we seem to believe that robots can’t become conscious too.

Actually the problem whether robots can become conscious does not have to concern us here. What is more pressing is that robots are already around and they are working as soldiers or caregivers and many other things. What should we do with them? Is it possible to install some kind of “ethics algorithem” into their “minds” so that they become ethical? So a very interesting question is: Can robots become more ethical than us? If so, then what is left of us human beings?

More of Nyima Dakpa Rinpoche on Happiness

Here is the remaining portion of Nyima Dakpa Rinpoche’s talk on “Path to Happiness” at Chulalongkorn University that I talked about in the previous post. May all beings be happy and meet with causes of happiness!


Ordinary relaxation depends on external situation, but real happiness comes from inner realization. This is what the Buddhas teach. We have to use our opportunities for good causes. Material things can be either negative or positive, depending on how they are going to be used. We can use the material things to benefit people; we can make differences in their lives through these material things. This is a way to gain merit. Thus wealth can be meaningful. When you die you are left only with your own store of merit. You cannot bring your bank account with you when you die. You can use only another kind of account, the merit account that shows how much merit and demerit you have accumulated in your lifetime. So having wealth is not necessarily a bad thing; it can be a force for good and a considerable amount of merit too, if the wealth is used wisely, which is to benefit those who are in need.

Happiness only comes when you wish and act so that other people become happy. If you think only of benefiting only yourselves, thinking only that you yourself alone shall be happy, then you won’t be happy at all.

Be satisfied with your life. Be content and happy at every moment. Look into yourself. Look at your own mind, and then you will become more relaxed. Do not look up to other people. Don’t think that you need to be as rich as they are, as intelligent as they are, and so on. If we do, then there is no end. We will always look up, up and up and we will not be satisfied with what we have at all. You may aim at a certain level, but once you reach that point, there will be more and more higher up so you will always feel lacking and deprived, no matter how much you have already. Moving up, you will never be able to touch the sky.

Do not waste your life. It is very difficult to be born a human being, so let us not waste this very precious moment when we are human beings who are intelligent enough to understand the Buddhas’ teaching.

Things are always impermanent; they are always changing at every moment. However, many of us do not get this point so they act as if things are always permanent. The result is that they are mired in all sorts of suffering, including wandering around in samsara.

So when you are stressed or depressed, practice meditation. With proper way of practicing meditation, the genuine door toward real and lasting peace and happiness will lie open for us. The goal is to perceive things as they actually are, without any fabrications. Stay focused on things as they simply are. Discover the deep silence inside when your mind becomes still. This silence inside is none other than the happiness that we have been seeking. In that state of true meditation, your mind will simply dissolves into this state of pure, deep state of silence. But if you do meditation incorrectly, you will be full of endless chatters – your mind, instead of being calm and still, will be all the busier and noisier.

During your meditation, all kinds of thoughts will arise. They come spontaneously; they just come. So don’t be alarmed or stressed when thoughts arise. This is a very natural occurrence. What we need to do is just to leave those thoughts where they are, and then they will go away on their own. Don’t try to force the thoughts out of your mind. You will never succeed in doing that. It will only invite more and more thoughts. Then we will realize that there are actually no boundaries between thoughts – all thoughts dissolve into one another. This is the direct entrance into Emptiness, śūnyatā.  This is the state where we are truly free from all stresses, all fabricating thoughts, all defilements. We have full potential, full energy. This is the best way to combat the problem of unhappiness.

We need to practice in order that we can overcome the five poisons that have been afflicting us for so long. Then you don’t need to run around searching for cures anymore. The cure is already there inside your mind.

The Soul of the Robot

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.

Buddhism and Mathematics

One of the many topics that was raised during the talk on the Thai translation of Matthieu Ricard’s and Trinh Xuan Thuan’s book concerned the relation between Buddhist thought and mathematics. There have of course been quite a lot of talks about how Buddhism and science are related, but not much at all on Buddhism and mathematics. So that was a welcome change. Unfortunately we did not spend much time on this fascinating topic.

It was credit to Ricard and Thuan that they spend one entire chapter on this topic. The idea is how mathematics is related to reality and what the Buddhists think of that. The eleventh chapter of the book is entitled “The Grammar of the Universe” or something like that. What is interesting is how mathematics is an accurate description of reality at all. Which comes first, mathematics or the world?

On the one hand, this is a very simple point. We all know that two plus two equals four. So you have two things, add another two, and count the result, which is of course four. But the premise of mathematics is that you cannot get mathematics (or logic for that matter) out of empirical observation. You just cannot form a general statement “2 + 2 = 4” from just observing two things and another two things. The reason is that you have somehow to know before hand that two plus two equals four in order for you to be able to get the conclusion that these two things and these other two make four! This is Kant’s main argumentative strategy in his entire critical philosophy. And for Kant mathematics is a prime example of what he calls “synthetic a priori” judgments, e.g., judgments that are true by virtue of their correspondence with some outside measuring point but which is known entirely through thinking alone.

We are not actually discussing Kant here; the point is that if the truth of mathematics does not come from observation, then it must come from inside. Ricard and Thuan discussed that perhaps this situation implies that there is some universal and all powerful mind whose thinking made all mathematical statements true (all the true ones, of course). It is this big mind that guarantees that two plus two equals four, that the sum of the squares on the side of the two legs of a right angle triangle is equal to that on the hypotenuse, that the law of modus ponens (‘p’ and ‘if p then q’ always implies ‘q’), and so on.

So this big mind might refer to God. So here the discussion went on to see what the Buddhists think about this. I don’t quite remember what Ricard, the Buddhist representative in the book, made of this, so I am going to present my own thought. I also did this during the talk last Saturday, but time was so limited then.

I think the main difference between the theistic religions like Christianity and Islam and non-theistic one like Buddhism might not appear as large as one might think. Buddhism would have no problem recognizing the Big Mind alluded to above, so long as that refers, not to some external being, but in fact to our own minds. It is us who create mathematics and it is ultimately speaking our own minds, working together collectively, that create the world such that it is true of mathematics. In other words, we could also say that we human beings are gods unto ourselves. There is a Big Mind that creates reality corresponding to math, yes, but that Mind is not apart from us.

Whether this is shocking or not depends on your view on theism. If you believe that humans are apart from God, then you’d find this shocking. However, this is entirely correspondent with the Buddhist attitude that salvation is ultimately the person’s own responsibility and lies entirely within the person’s power to achieve. The Buddha is only a teacher. You don’t need to follow his teaching. The Buddha has no power to drag you to Liberation. No being does. You have to do it yourself.

Coming down from theological discussion and back down to earth, we see that the idea that it is human mind itself that creates mathematics to which reality belongs makes quite a lot of sense. We form mathematics and we perceive the world according to the same conceptual structure that formed the math in the first place, so no wonder the world corresponds to it. However, even thought mathematics looks very certain, it does not describe what reality is like ultimately speaking. This is because all mathematics depends on concepts and language (so is logic), and once you have concepts, you have to divide reality into separate chunks. So at best mathematics is a model or a map, and no map can become identical to the reality it is the map of. This refers to the doctrine of Emptiness or sunyata. We can say that math can always approach that, but never reach it, because if it does, then it would cease to be the math that it is.