What Buddhism Can Do for AI Ethics

People in both East and West need to share their ideas and consider those of others to enrich their own perspectives. Because the development and use of AI spans the entire globe, how we view it must be informed by all major intellectual traditions.

With that in mind, I think the knowledge derived from Buddhist teaching could benefit anyone working on AI ethics anywhere in the world, and not just in traditionally Buddhist cultures (which are mainly found in the East and mainly in South East 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 strive to decrease 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 fixing an unsatisfactory system or process, or improving any situation. Using technology to discriminate against people, or to monitor and suppress them, would clearly be 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 self-cultivation. 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 it. 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. That is, the AI ​​they produce must aim to help 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 guidelines on AI to work as intended.