Zen and the Art of Intelligent Robotics

Ben Goertzel Interviews Chinese Zen Buddhist AI Researcher Zhou Changle

In the last few decades, science has unveiled a tremendous amount about how the mind works – exposing various aspects of the hidden logic of cognition, perception and action, and connecting the mind to the brain.  But modern science is not the first discipline to probe the nature of the mind.  Multiple traditions within diverse cultures throughout history have probed the mind in their own ways.  For example, my teenage self spent many perplexed hours poring over books on Buddhist psychology, reviewing the theories of the 14th century Indian logicians Dharmakirti and Dignaga, whose detailed analysis of the different possible states of consciousness seemed in many ways more revealing than modern consciousness science.

Among the numerous approaches to the mind, Zen Buddhism ranks as one of the most intriguing.   Far less theoretical than modern science or medieval Indian logic, Zen emphasizes experiential wisdom and the attainment of special states of consciousness – Zen “enlightenment.”   While a great deal has been written about Zen, this is a literature fraught with irony, since one of the central notions of Zen is that true understanding of the mind and world can’t be transmitted in language.

According to the traditional story, Zen began one day when Buddha, addressing an audience gathered to hear his teachings, chose to remain silent instead.  Instead of discoursing as expected, he stood there quietly holding a flower in his hand.  Most of the audience was confused, but one disciple, Kashyapa, experienced a flash of sudden understanding – and gave the Buddha a subtle smile.  Buddha gave Kashyapa the flower.  Then Buddha finally spoke to the crowd, “All that can be given in words I have given to you; but with this flower, I give Kashyapa the key to all of the teachings.”  This is the origin of Zen — a “wordless transmission” of mind to mind.  And – to continue the traditional tale — 1300 years or so later, in 500AD, the Indian monk Bodhidharma brought the wordless teaching to China, founding Chan, the Chinese version of Zen … which later spawned the somewhat different Japanese version of Zen, that is perhaps the best known species of Zen in the West.

Zen is famous for brief riddles called koans, such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”  Meditating on such riddles has the potential to bring enlightenment, when the mind suddenly realizes the futility of approaching the koan (or the world or the mind) with conceptual thought, and fully embraces the paradox at the heart of the koan (and the world and the mind).

Chinese Zen spawned what has been my favorite statement about Zen since I first encountered it when I was 18 years old, in the wonderful little book The Zen Teachings of Huang Po

The dharma of the dharma is that there are no dharmas, yet that this dharma of no-dharma is in itself a dharma; and now that the no-dharma dharma has been transmitted, how can the dharma of the dharma be a dharma?

The word “dharma” means, roughly, the essential teachings of the Buddha (which lead to enlightenment) and the essential constituent factors of the world.

Huang Po gives us Zen straight up, not prettied-up for Western consumption like some of the Western Zen literature (e.g. Robert Pirsig’s famous and excellent book Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which inspired the title of this interview).

And Zen is alive and well in China today, as I found out for myself recently.  For the last few years I’ve been collaborating on AI and robotics research with a lab at Xiamen University in south China (see my earlier article on the Chinese Singularity for a little more about this); and on one of my visits to Xiamen, I was delighted to learn that Zhou Changle, the dean of Cognitive Science at Xiamen University, is a very accomplished Zen practitioner.

Changle was one of the original masterminds of the Artificial Brain project that brought my good friend Hugo de Garis to Xiamen a few years ago.  Hugo retired recently, but the project continues within Changle’s BLISS (Brain-Like Intelligent SystemS) lab.   We have 3 humanoid Nao robots in the BLISS lab, together with some supercomputing equipment and a host of capable grad students and professors, and are working on making the robots intelligent and (in at least some sense) self-aware.  Our technical approach involves a combination of the OpenCog AI architecture I’ve co-created, Hugo de Garis’s evolving neural net approach to perception processing, and the ideas of Changle and his Chinese collaborators.

Hugo’s main interest, in the context of our Xiamen project, regarded large-scale brain simulation using neural nets on specialized hardware.  On the other hand, Changle’s scientific contribution to the project has more to do with machine consciousness and the logic of mental self-reflection – topics that, after I learned of his involvement in Zen, seemed to fit in perfectly.   And beyond our collaborative AI/robotics project, Changle also carries out research on a host of other topics including computational brain modeling, computational modeling of analogy and metaphor and creativity, computational musicology and information processing of data regarding traditional Chinese medicine.

Changle originally pursued his study of Zen under a teacher – but after several years of that, his teacher judged he had reached a sufficient level of enlightenment that he should continue on his own!   And as well as practicing Zen and various forms of science, he has written extensively (in Chinese) about the relation between the two, including over a dozen papers and a book titled TO DEMONSTRATE ZEN— ZEN THOUGHT VIEWED FROM SCIENCE.

The abstract of one of his recent talks gives a flavor of how he connects Zen with cognitive science:

The various states of consciousness experienced by human beings may be divided into four categories, using the philosophical concept of intentionality: intentional, non-intentional, meta-intentional, and de-intentional states. Analyzing Zen “enlightenment” in the light of this categorization, one concludes that Zen thinking is a de-intentional self-reflective mental capacity.  This establishes a philosophical basis for the Zen method of mind training, enabling the exploration of connections between Zen, philosophy of mind, cognitive science, and other areas.

– however, Changle’s talks are much more colorful than this conveys, filled with humorous stories in the rich Zen tradition.

I interviewed Changle recently about Zen and robotics and consciousness, focusing specifically on some areas where we don’t quite agree, regarding the relationship between AI and consciousness.

Changle foresees AIs and robots may eventually become extraordinarily capable, potentially even launching some sort of technological Singularity.  But he also thinks they will always be impaired compared to humans in their internal experience, due to a lack of a certain type of “consciousness” that humans possess – a “consciousness” closely related to Zen enlightenment.

On the other hand, I myself suspect that AIs and robots can eventually become just as intelligent and conscious as we humans are.  And ultimately, I suspect, they can become just as enlightened as any human — or more so.

Unsurprisingly, during our conversation we failed to come to full agreement on this set of issues – but we did have an interesting dialogue!

Ben:
Changle, I’ve interviewed a number of scientists and also some spiritually-oriented people — but you’re the first person I’ve interviewed who’s BOTH an extremely accomplished scientist AND deeply experienced as a spiritual practitioner within a particular wisdom tradition (Zen).  I’m curious how you balance these two aspects of your mind and life.  Do you ever find them pulling you in two different directions?

Changle:
Zen, strictly speaking, is not a religion in the sense that Buddhism, Christianity and Islam are.  It is a philosophy towards life.  Thus it won’t collide with science.  In the purest sense of Zen, it doesn’t even emphasize meditation.  Freedom of mind and enlightened wisdom are what matter.

Ben:
It’s an intriguingly paradoxical philosophy towards life – and its elusiveness seems part of its essence.  I remember you gave a talk about Zen and science entitled “Not Two.” And later I saw the Chinese characters for “Not Two” on an archway in a big Buddhist temple complex on Hainan island.

Changle:
Zen basically goes against any forms of dualism. A is true; A is false; A is true and false; A is not true and not false.

Ben:
So once you’ve described Zen in some way, you’ve set up a dualism between the things that match your description, and the things that don’t.  And so what you’re describing isn’t really Zen, which is non-dual….  It’s simple to the intuition yet perplexing to the thinking mind.  I get it.  And I don’t get it.  And I both get it and don’t get it!

Heh…. But I remember once you said that only Chinese could become enlightened!  So I guess I don’t get it.

Changle:
That was a joke, of course!

Ben:
Of course — but the reason it was a funny joke is that there’s a little bit of truth at the core of it.

Changle:
Yes, the intuitive Chinese mentality and the holistic Chinese philosophy have advantages over the Western analytic mentality of dualism, in terms of grasping the essence of Zen.   But even so, Zen is still very elusive to most Chinese.

Ben:
Now let’s turn to your AI research, and its relationship to your Zen intuitions.

Superficially, there would seem to be a certain disharmony between the views of the mind implicit in AI research and Zen.  AI is about taking parts of the material world, and arranging them in such a way that intelligent behavior results.  But Zen takes a very different view of the mind – it views the mind as more like the basic ground of existence, not as something that comes out of arrangements of material objects like semiconductors or switches or neurons. How do you reconcile these two positions?

Changle:
To me, the material world reveals itself through the human mind. In other words, it never exists without a human understanding it.  However, mind is not an entity, but rather a process of making sense of everything. The intelligence that we are achieving through robots is not an entity either, but rather a process of demonstrating intelligence via the robot.

Ben:
But what about consciousness?  Let’s say we build an intelligent computer program that is as smart as a human, or smarter. Could it possibly be conscious?  Would it necessarily be conscious?  Would its degree and/or type of consciousness depend on its internal structures and dynamics, as well as its
behaviors?

Changle:
Consciousness, as I understand it, has three properties: self-referential, coherent and qualia.  Even if a robot becomes a zombie that acts just like it possesses consciousness, it won’t really possess consciousness — because the three properties of consciousness cannot all be realized by the reductive, analytic approach, whereas AI is based on this sort of approach.

Ben:
Hmmm… but I wonder why you think the three properties of consciousness can’t be demonstrated in a robot?  I agree that human-like consciousness has three properties (self-reference, coherence and qualia) – there are many other ways to describe the properties of consciousness, but that seems OK to me.  But as a working assumption, I’d be strongly tempted to assume robot can have all of these….

I wonder which of the three properties of consciousness you think a robot is incapable of having?  Qualia, coherence or self-reference?  And why is it that you think a robot can’t have them?

To me, a human can be thought of as a kind of “meat robot” — so I don’t see why a robot can’t have all the properties a human can have.

Though I have to admit my own view of consciousness is rather eccentric. Although I don’t identify as a Buddhist, I share with many Buddhists the notion of panpsychism – the notion that “everything is conscious” in a sense.

But of course I can see the “reflective, deliberative consciousness” that humans have is something different than the universal consciousness that’s immanent in everything including rocks and particles.   I wonder what’s your view on the relation between these two types of consciousness — on the one hand, the “raw consciousness” that we panpsychists see everywhere; and on the other hand, the “reflective, deliberative consciousness” that humans have a lot of, mice may have a little of, and rocks seem to have basically none of.

Changle:
In Zen we say that SUCHNESS is the nature of everything.  For a conscious human being, its Suchness is its consciousness; but for material things, their Suchness is their properties such as shape, substance or weight but not consciousness.

Ben:
Hmm, the word “suchness” seems hard to translate from Chinese to English!!

Turning to the Internet for guidance, a writer named A.H. Almaas says that:

In simple terms, to experience ourselves as Being is to experience our existence as such, to experience our own Presence, our own “suchness” directly. It is the simplest, most obvious, most taken-for-granted perception that we exist. But this existence is usually inferred, mediated through mind, as in Descartes’s “Cogito ergo sum” – “I think, therefore I am.” Existence is background, not foreground, for our ordinary experience. To penetrate into this background, to question our assumptions about reality and ourselves, allows us to encounter directly the immense mystery of the arising of our consciousness and of the world.

It is Suchness, pure Suchness. We cannot say anything about it. We cannot say it is self, we cannot say it is not self, we cannot say it is God, we cannot say it is the universe, we cannot say it is a person, we cannot say it is not a person; the moment we say anything, we are within mind. If we use any concept here, even the concept of purity, simplicity, or whatever else, we are within the mind, and we are blocking that which cannot be named.

Changle:
The Chinese word for “suchness” is “真如” or “自性”, i.e. “buddhahood”, also known as “the foundational 识” or “种子识” or “Alayavijnana” etc….  It is the name for the nature of everything.

Ben:
So you say everything has Suchness, but only for certain systems like humans does the Suchness manifest itself as consciousness per se.  I’m reminded of some Western philosophers like Stuart Hameroff, who say that everything has “proto-consciousness”, but only in some specific cases like people or other advanced animals does the proto-consciousness manifest itself as consciousness.

Whereas, I would say that everything has “consciousness” but only in some specific cases like people or other advanced animals or sufficiently sophisticated AIs, does this basic consciousness manifest itself as “reflective, deliberative consciousness.”

But it’s actually quite hard to tell the extent to which we disagree on this point, versus just having very different terminologies.  Human language was created to discuss practical matters, not to have precise discussions about subtle points like this… and translation between English and Chinese makes it even trickier.

Changle:
I’ll explain my view in a little more detail.

According to the Buddhist perspective, mind is a kind of process, not a kind of entity. The process of mind contains: five kandhas (also called aggregates) and eight senses (八识) which are also often thought of as “eight consciousness.”  The eight senses are:

  1. Eye (vision/visual sense)
  2. Nose (olfactory sense)
  3. Ear (auditory sense)
  4. Tongue (taste sense)
  5. Body (tactile sense)
  6. Mind (consciousness)
  7. Manas (realization/awareness)
  8. Alaya (seed, prajna, suchness)

Note: the last one is the “suchness”!

If you want to compare these Buddhist concepts with “consciousness”, the sixth sense (“真如”, translated as Mind above) is the most similar with the western concept of “consciousness”.  But according to Zen, Manas (the seventh sense, i.e. the ability of awareness or realization) is more nature than consciousness; and the only thing which can decide the Manas is Alaya (Suchness).  So really, the concept of “真如” doesn’t exist in the system of Western philosophy – it’s not exactly the Western concept of “mind” or “consciousness.”

And corresponding to these eight senses, the five aggregates identified in Buddhism are:

  1. Matter or Form (rupa): Perception, i.e. the physical form corresponding to the first five organs of the eight senses, which has intentionality.  AI robots can have this ability
  2. Sensation or Feeling (vedana): The feeling in reception of physical things by the senses through the mind or body; emotion, also known as “qualia”, which doesn’t have intentionality. It’s hard to give AI robots this kind of ability, but probably not impossible.
  3. Thinking (senjna): Thought and cognition, which has intentionality.AI robots can have this ability
  4. Volition or Mental Formation (samskara): Conditioned responses to objects of experience, such as language, behavior, ideas and soon, possessing intentionality.  Robots can have this ability.
  5. 识: Awareness/Realization/Subconsciousness, which is anti-intentionality-ed /  de-intentionality-ed / un-intentionality-ed.  And this is beyond the scope of robots!

Regarding the project of implementing the “mental power” of humans in robots, the key troublesome point is number 5 in the list — the implementation of “awareness mechanics” (i.e. the ability of de-intentionality), which is the so-called enlightenment of Zen.  For this purpose, current AI research, which is based on a reductive and analytical approach, is not helpful at all.

Ben:
I think I understand what you’re saying; and I find this perspective fascinating.  And I know the details run a lot deeper than what you’ve described just now; you’ve kept it compact and simple since this is an interview not a long lecture….

But still – as you probably expected, I’m not convinced.

Once again … why do you say that a robot cannot have 识 (awareness, de-intentionality,…)?

I mean, think about people for a moment.  From one perspective, humans are meat — we’re made of organs, cells, molecules, etc.   From another perspective, humans are minds that have 识 …

Similarly, from one perspective, robots are machines — they’re made of wires, memory disks, silicon molecules….   But from another perspective, perhaps robots can eventually be minds that have 识, just like humans…

After all, Ben cannot directly experience Changle’s 识 … just like Ben cannot directly experience a robot’s 识.   But even so, Changle’s 识 has its own suchness, and perhaps the robot’s 识 can have its own suchness as well — if the robot is made correctly!  Say if it’s built using OpenCog….

Changle:
The awareness (enlightenment) of Zen is beyond all concepts, but all the approaches we use for building robots and AI systems, and all the behaviors of robots and AI systems, are based on concepts

Ben:
Heh….  I had intended to ask you sometime during this interview whether you think an AI program or an intelligent robot could ever experience enlightenment in the same sense that a human can.  Can a robot attain enlightenment ?– can we have a Zen Master bot?  But I think your remarks have made your view on this pretty clear.

Changle:
Right.  Robots can’t be enlightened because they don’t possess consciousness.

Ben:
Your view has an impressive coherency to it.  But even so, I’m going to keep on being a stubbornly unenlightened Westerner!  My perspective is more like this:

  • We may initially construct an AI robot according to our plans and ideas and knowledge – our concepts, as you say
  • However, once we release the robot into the world, and it starts interacting with the environment and self-organizing, then the robot becomes its own being … it goes beyond our initial programming, just as an embryo grows beyond the original cells that make it up, and  just as a baby eventually goes beyond its initial neural wiring.   Through its own growth, self-organization, development and interaction with the world, the robot’s “suchness” can develop consciousness, insight, human-like qualia and knowledge over time.

At least, that is my current belief and hypothesis.  But we will need to build MUCH better AI systems and robots to find out if I am correct or not!

And of course, that’s what we’re working on together in the BLISS lab in Xiamen…

Anyway it’s good to hear your different perspective, articulated so well.  Life would get boring if everybody agreed with me…

I don’t think we’re going to get much further on the question of consciousness just now, so let me shift attention to a slightly different question, still in the robotics vein.  I wonder just how sensitively you think humanlike intelligence and consciousness depend on having a humanlike body.

For instance, in our lab in Xiamen we have 3 Nao robots, which our students are controlling with AI algorithms.  The Nao robots are roughly humanoid looking, but they have many shortcomings relative to human bodies — for instance, their skin has no sensation in it; and they can’t feel any sensations inside their body; they can’t move their faces in accordance with their emotions; etc.   Setting aside subtle issues of consciousness — do you think these physical shortcomings of the Nao robots will intrinsically prevent an AI embodied by the Nao robot from having a human-level intelligence?  How realistic do you think a robot body would have to be to really support human-like intelligence?

Changle:
The human intelligence and body are not independent of each other. If they are viewed separately, that is dualism.   The robot’s AI and the robot’s body are not independent of each other either.

Ben:
OK – so one last thing, then.  You’re familiar with Ray Kurzweil and Vernor Vinge’s notion of the Singularity — a point in time at which technological change becomes so rapid that it’s basically infinite from the human perspective, and superhuman AIs rather than humans are the  main driving force on the planet.   Kurzweil foresees it will come about in 2045.   What do you think?  Will a Singularity happen this century?  Will a Singularity happen at all?  If a Singularity does happen, what will it mean in Zen terms?  Could a Singularity possibly  mean Enlightenment for everyone, via for example special computer chips that we plug into our brains and that stimulate the brain’s spiritual centers in a way that  spiritually “wakes a person up”?

Changle:
Such technology breakthroughs are possible.  But putting computer chips in the brain might not produce novel conscious experiences, if consciousness is discovered to be based on quantum entanglement.

Ben:
Hmmm….  Once again you remind me of Stuart Hameroff a bit – what he calls proto-consciousness is closely related to Zen “suchness”, and he’s quite convinced that human consciousness depends on macroscopic quantum phenomena in the brain.

However, again, I’m a bit unconvinced.  I think there are some subtle points about quantum entanglement that no one really understands yet.  For instance, there’s some mathematics suggesting that quantum entanglement is really about the relationship between a system and the observer, not just about the system in itself.  So, in some cases a system typically modeled using classical physics, may be best modeled (with respect to a given observer) using quantum mathematics and quantum entanglement.   I wrote a blog post about this a while back; maybe you can have a look when you get the chance.

Changle:
Anyway, Zen enlightenment is an experience of a certain attitude, which a robot or brain-implant computer chip will have a hard time to experience as it doesn’t possess consciousness.   So it’s not entirely clear how AI or brain chips can help with enlightenment, though they can do a lot of interesting things.

Ben:
Well, if human consciousness is related to quantum entanglement, then maybe we could enhance human consciousness and ease human enlightenment using quantum computer brain chip implants!   But I guess we’re going pretty far out here, and I’ve taken up a lot of your time – it’s probably a good point to draw the interview to a close.

One thing that comes through clearly from your comments is that the Buddhist perspective on mind is a very rich and deep one, which nudges AI and robotics research in a certain direction, different from how Western philosophy habitually nudges it.  For instance, Western AI theorists are constantly arguing about the importance of embodiment for intelligence, but for you it follows immediately from nonduality.  And the Buddhist theory of mind gives you a very clear perspective on which aspects of human intelligence can be expected to be achievable in AI robots.  I don’t agree with all your views but I think AI and robotics can use a lot of different ideas and perspectives. So I hope we can get more and more cooperation between Western and Chinese AI and robotics research, and get more and more cross-pollination and synergy between the different approaches to mind.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: This interview was conducted in a complex mish-mash of English and Chinese.  Copious thanks are due to Xiaojun Ding and Ruiting Lian for assistance with translation, including translation of some rather subtly untranslatable Buddhist philosophical terms (some with roots in Sanskrit as well as Chinese).

  1. Forgot to also include the implications of Buddhist thought for the transhumanist agenda. The Buddhist notion of transcendence or liberation from the human condition was based on the 3 marks of existence: impermanence, suffering, and non-self. All conscious beings (including AIs) must eventually face these 3 inescapable truths of reality. The Buddha’s solution to this was to learn to accept and be content, even blissful, about our predicament and to just let go of all attachment that keeps us clinging to the delusion of our ego. This is not unique to Buddhist/Eastern tradition by the way, the West has confronted the same ideas in its philosophies, most notable recently in existentialism/absurdism. The East has just known about it for much longer and have developed a tradition of practice to deal with these truths.

    Even if transhumanism is to be successful in using science and technology to end death, discomfort, and allow us to self-actualize throughout the multiverse, they will still need to come to grips somehow with these existential truths. The Buddha realized that it doesn’t matter if you are a human or a superintelligent AGI jupiter brain, if you are conscious and trying to analyze your own conscious self, you will see that there is nothing/everything already there.

    So I guess I’d consider myself a Zen Transhumanist, I want to keep on experiencing and growing while the process continues to flow, which means creating technologies to continue to expand my horizons. But I’m also not so attached to my ego to be scared of losing my conscious pattern (death) and sign up for cryonics out of misunderstanding and clinging either.

  2. I’m an atheist materialist (actually informationalist, but splitting hairs) who believes strong AGI is most probably possible without appealing to quantum mechanics (though still small chance QM might be needed), but probably really need to understand the classical biophysics of neural tissue and the role within the larger system of organism/environment.

    However, I also think that of all the perennial spiritual traditions, Buddhism (Zen especially) comes astonishingly close to describing significant truths about the mind. The original teachings of the Buddha simply describes a man who was turned off by the suffering of the external world and decided to turn inward and engage in a science of introspection, an empirical phenomenology that consisted of observing one’s own thoughts. This practice eventually resulted in a shocking realization that one’s mind is a process, not a static thing, and that what we refer to as ‘I’ or ‘self’ is an illusion. This is enlightenment, but words don’t do it justice, one must come to this realization, this enlightenment, on their own for it to truly sink in. Based on this realization, once they had this general conception that what one really is is an ever-changing pattern flowing through time, constantly being destroyed and reborn anew slightly different every moment, they further developed systems of cosmology, morality, practices, etc. around this core understanding. The rest of the Buddhist ideas are hit or miss, but I think it deserves a lot of credit for revealing a fundamental and inescapable feature of mind, even though most people probably haven’t really deeply internalized the idea by coming to it on through their own contemplative efforts.

  3. I tried to put the arguments into my own words. Maybe it will help illuminate the Buddhist point of view?

    I see Changle’s argument as:

    A rock is obviously not conscious. A moving toy is not conscious. Now matter how complicated the autonoma appears to be, its appearance, speech, movement, etc. it is still not conscious. Even if its actions become unpredictable to humans, and amazingly complex and robust, it is still a limited virtual intelligence devoid of the seat true intelligence.

    I see Ben’s as:

    If we assemble to causes and conditions of intelligence then they will spontaneously arise. If using technology (e.g. memristors) we create and artificial brain of sufficient capacity, in the proper way, then there should be no a priori reason why consciousness, or mind stream, should not appear. Thus a fully sentient being can be formed irrespective of being phenomenologically composed of organic or inorganic materials.

    I see Changle’s counter argument as:

    The seed of a mango fruit can never grow into a pear tree. The motivation of the science of AI is grounded in material reductionism. Thus, the only possible fruition of material reductionism is a material object. Or as he put it, the technology is rooted in duality so any product formed by it is dual. Similarly, since language is rooted in duality it can never describe suchness which is inherently non-dual. Thus the only way for us to obtain enlightenment is simply to experience it.

    Aside:

    In many ways I hope that Changle is right. One thing that worries me is the possibility of creating true sentient life, and then causing those artificial beings to suffer. Even accidentally. What if while researching you write a conscious AI and delete it, is that murder?

    Also, my personal belief, is that by the time the singularity gets here it will be boring. The technology we have now would be a “singularity” to someone in the past. Before it becomes a reality, a paradigm shifting technology has been predicted, researched, prototyped, etc. and is quite mundane.

    • I think I should learn from you the way how to express effectivly:) I hold the belief that we are much more complicated and magical than we know about ourselves, time will tell us everything! So it is great to be alive!

  4. I’m convinced ordinary consciousness is just a bunch of data structures and processes, and computers will certainly be able to emulate it.

    As for direct consciousness of universal being, arguably most people now are only robots, who don’t see it either, at least not without typically quite a bit of training.

    However, quantum computers based on states of matter probably ARE conscious in the deep sense. Hence a robotic mind with a quantum core can probably become enlightened — with quite a bit of training.

  5. Searle’s “Chinese room argument” is mistaken because the mind who understands Chinese is the entire system, not the human operator subsystem. The human is a part of the mind and is not consciously aware of the thoughts that the mind is thinking.

    If, as it has been proposed, there is a group mind of which we are part, then we are all neurons of larger mind, whose thoughts we are not conscious of.

  6. Moving on from the slightly weird comment above me, I have to agree with sheekus that the ethnocentrism is rather laughable. Personally my background is in the sociology of religion and I have never seen anything to suggest that Zen is any different to any other school of pre-analytical mysticism. I would suggest the author of this article look at the rich Western, Middle Eastern and Indian mystic schools — the sort typified by Francis of Assisi and the Islamic Sufis — before jumping to conclusion about the exclusivity of Chinese character. There are a number of sociological studies which have suggested fairly convincingly (such as the one in the last edition of the European Journal of Political Science) that there is no especial difference between Asian and Western mentalities when socio-economic factors are accounted for. The perceived radical break between Asian and Western values and thought was constructed by the politicians of both sides (through Western orientalism and modern Asian nationalist movements) and does not hold up to the real social reality.

    I frankly don’t see what Zen has to offer us that is different or innovative. It’s understandable, of course, that in the context of the highly energized nationalistic Chinese civil religion and discourse it is presented as being something radically new. Westerners are also drawn to it, often because of constructed dissatisfaction with their own culture. But in terms of a quantifiable and generalizable benefit to scientific understanding? No.

  7. “Hmm, the word “suchness” seems hard to translate from Chinese to English!!”

    No, it’s not. We use the word “transcendent.”

    Human are have an immortal transcendence as is the Platonic traditions of western philosophy has understood perfectly well but the newer ideas of liberalism are meant to destroy that tradition in Western thought.

    Liberalism was introduced venetian Paulo Sapri and the main idea is to liberate man from the sense of his “transcendence” and all reductionist “scientist” which has sent science down one blind alley after another.

    The entire field of AI is a fraud because it is rooted discreteness of objects. It reduces the entire world to nearly infinitely small and dense balls hitting each other in a way that isn’t governed by anything but statistical rules.

    In this view, the mind is just another statistical emergence of particles hitting each other and once we calculate the emergent pattern we can produce a thinking conscience machine.

    The problem with this pseudo-western Aristotelian worldview is that only place discreteness exists is in the human mind as a tool in understanding the universe. The truth that “Zen” understands is that there is only one object in the universe which is the universe itself. The mind exists in the universe as a qualia that represents the whole of the universe itself.

    Think of it this way, the universe might correctly be modeled by a GUT known as E8 which uses lie groups and its rank, which is the dimension of its maximal torus, is 8.

    Well the complete sensorum isn’t five separate senses but mirrors the E8 geometry as a unified group.

    1. Eye (vision/visual sense)
    2. Nose (olfactory sense)
    3. Ear (auditory sense)
    4. Tongue (taste sense)
    5. Body (tactile sense)
    6. Mind (consciousness)
    7. Manas (realization/awareness)
    8. Alaya (seed, prajna, suchness)

    The interplay between each of the 8 sense dimensions is what let’s discover the universe because it’s structure already matches the E8 structure because the E8 structure of universe creates it through the physics which drive evolution.

    This analogy is merely a pedagogical in explaining the why the human being’s soul-mind is transcendent and is not reducible. The Universe could be on a geometry other than E8 and therefore the “geometry of the mind” would parallel it.

    What does this mean? It means that Minds are in the Universe because the Universe is in Mind. Or the many is one and the one is the many. Both Plato and the Budda understood concept of hypersystemmtry between the “Zen” or Transcendent that is the nature of reality.

    But Liberal reductionism denies all concepts of hypersystemmtry because they have tiny minds and dead souls.

    What does this have to do with AI. It prove that Digital AI is impossible because transcendent nature of the Mind and deeper Alaya essentially forms a Hypercomputer for understanding the hypersysemmetries of the universe in which it is found.

    Since all theories of Digital AI are based in Turing computation rather than Non-Turing computers the entirely enterprise is doomed from the start.

    The only way to get true general AI is non-digital analog computer (like the Brain) which a real number computers. So unless you AI guys are playing with analog memristors you are wasting everyone’s time.

    Digital systems are dangerous to society and culture because the tendency will be to think that the eventual aggregation of narrow AI applications will result in producing AGI but what in fact would have occurred is the decay of the human intellectual culture to the point where scientists are no longer able to generate a theory or creative thought outside the symbolic syntax used by the digital computer systems i.e humanity will have essentially been programmed by our machines into machines no longer capacable of truly creative “hypercomputing” that is characterized by discoveries in non symbolic thought like metaphor and classical polyphonic music.

    Digital Culture is Thought-Death and Digital AI scientists are pied-pipers lending us to our DOOM.

    Now, if you disagree you may be right but you must refute argument.

    • I can’t agree with you more. Apparently, Ben and Changle have quite different expectations on their AI research. Changle’ s is more realistic.

      “Human are have an immortal transcendence as is the Platonic traditions of western philosophy has understood perfectly well but the newer ideas of liberalism are meant to destroy that tradition in Western thought. ”
      —-I believe that more and more westerners will look back.

      “It means that Minds are in the Universe because the Universe is in Mind…”—–Did you read Aurobindo’s work?

      I’m attracted to exploration on the relationship between the reality and mind:)

  8. And don’t buy the “Westerners can’t understand” bullshit. It’s just their little harmless(?) ethnocentrism. Zen is accessible to people regardless east, west, north south, secular, religious, or christian or Muslim, transhumanist or humanist.

  9. Very interesting! One of your best post by far!
    I used to identify myself as a secular buddhist, I still am to an extent, especially when it comes to Zen. I am familiar with all the stuff that you are talking about in this interview, e.g. skhandas, suchness etc. So just to let you know, not all Zen practioners + transhumanists + Chinese think like your friend Changle. There’s a lot of finer disagreements in Buddhism, even in Zen.

    Ben, My view on “enlightened bot” is much closer to yours. Since it’s not possible for us humans to know other minds of humans in the 1st place. (it’s called “problem of other minds” in philosophy) It is essentially meaningless to say that robots in the future cannot have self-awareness, and hence be enlightened. From the exterior perspective, we humans are just bunch of mishmashes of neuronal firings.
    Aliens cannot possibly know that we have subjective consciousness just by looking at our neuronal firings.

    Let’s do a little scifi:
    Now imagine a universe where the 1st sentient creatures are made out of silicon–of wires, protocol packets, and complex transistors. They slowly build a science community until they discover they could build primitive intelligent things using carbon and cells. And later they build neurons, then neuronal chips, then brains! But they look at the brain, and all they see is electrical impulses of–all-or-none action potentials. They ask, “though they can be intelligent just like us, but how can just ons and offs of electrical impulses be

    There’s a reason why I object to Searle’s “Chinese room argument” not because it’s not informative about how AI works–but because it’s like the “ghost in the machine” argument. You got a little homunculus sitting inside a box doing instructions–it’s “soul” in a modern disguise.
    It’s essentially meaningless because we cannot know other people’s mind’s in the 1st place, let alone robot’s. What will be meaningful however is if advanced AI, pass Turing test in every human ability, then it’s just not politically meaningful anymore to pretend that they don’t have a ghost or consciousness.

    (I’ll use this comment as stub for my new blog post, in the meanwhile, see my post on how to attain a Zen-like awareness in 5 steps, whether you are secular or not. )

    http://www.cybernoeticman.com/2011/02/how-to-have-eternity-in-hour-in-5-easy.html

  10. Does The Zen Teachings of Huang Po cover in greater detail the 8 senses? I have a hard time, from my impoverished western perspective, understanding the nuanced differences between suchness and consciousness. Or indeed the three properties of consciousness and their proper relationship among the 8 senses.

    None the less, I agree basically with Ben. Time will tell…our future super-human AI’s the truth of the matter.