Computer Science

AI Zen

No computer will ever be able to experience the state of Enlightenment that is familiar to Zen monks and other Buddhist meditators. If a computer is ever going to be truly intelligent -- at least in the same way that humans are -- it must be able to have religious experiences that are the same as those that humans have. The particular religious experience I am speaking of is the realization of the emptiness that is considered to be one of the fundamental truths of eastern philosophical traditions such as Buddhism and Taoism.

According to Buddhist teachings, the pure realization of emptiness is free of any form, substance, nature, characteristics, or content -- yet it is not a mere nothingness.
Rather it is said to be fully awake and lucid yet totally beyond the limitations of dualistic consciousness. It contains no thought, no cognitive formations, no sense of identity or self-reflection, no perception --- in short it is totally free of any conceptuality. This is said to be the natural state of being, or the actual nature of mind itself when not obscured by conceptual overlays.

Computer systems, such as hypothetically sophisticated future artificial intelligence programs, will never be able to actually experience authentic religious experiences and will probably never be able to simulate them either -- no matter how "advanced" they are as software programs. This is because computers cannot do anything without using information -- computers are nothing but information processors. In other words, information processors are not capable of simulating or having states that contain no information content. The state of emptiness however is a state that is devoid of information content and is therefore not something that a computer will ever authentically realize. A similar religious experience that is considered to be the final level of spiritual evolution, and the highest realization, in Buddhism, is omniscience -- that state of being all-knowing, which is one of the qualities of a fully enlightened being. Omniscience is a state that is totally infinite -- it contains all information instantaneously. Computers on the other hand cannot process infinite information in finite time and can therefore not become omniscient. These are just two of many types of religious experience that are simply impossible for any computer or software program to generate. While computers and programs might be able to simulate such experiences, these simulations will never the same as the "real thing."

Simulated awareness or consciousness in a computer is not capable of replicating a state without information content. At best, a computer could simulate a lack of sensory input and a lack of cognitive formations -- but in order for that computer to be able to know that this was taking place it would have to create some infomration to represent that fact and then process that information in order to know that fact. In other words a computer can simulate emptiness but that is not the same as actual emptiness. A computer's simulation of emptiness is similar to the statement this sentence does not exist. We can say that all we like, but the mere act of saying it contradicts its meaning. In the same way, in order for a computer to simulate and know the experience of emptiness it must be in a state that is not equivalent to the state of experiencing emptiness.

Humans and other truly sentient beings are not limited in this way. We are capable of knowing emptiness directly because emptiness and awareness (that which knows) are in fact the very same thing. When a sentient being experiences emptiness it is unmediated by any information process -- emptiness is the experience of the very nature of self-awareness. In other words, because we are truly aware and our awareness is inherently aware of awareness, we are capable of being aware of emptiness which is the actual nature of awareness in its pure form (when unclouded by conceptual overlays). The point here is that when a sentient being has a direct realization of emptiness it does not take place through any conceptual process, in fact it is the opposite of a conceptual process, by definition. The experience of emptiness is a direct realization of the non-conceptual, contentless ground that underlies consciousness. Conceptual thought is merely a process of mental projection taking place on the basis of that ground. Computers are only capable of conceptual activity (although primitive at best). Computers are not capable of representing or experiencing a truly non-conceptual state of being.

For this reason, no computer will ever be truly self-aware in the same way that humans are. No computer will ever be able to experience the state of emptiness. No computer will ever be able to synthesize awareness. The Dalai Lama has mentioned in the past that someday, once computer become sophisticated enough, they may be able to support mindstreams, such that a consciousness could conceivably incarnate into such a machine. But that is very different from saying that the machine is conscious or that consciousness has been synthesized by the machine.

True consciousness, true awareness, does not emerge from any formal information process. It is fundamental to the universe. In other words, awareness does not come from something or somewhere -- it is already there and always has been. Just like energy. We never create it, it has always existed and we merely move it, transform it, and channel it from point to point.

Similarly, the human body and brain do not create conscious and are not themselves conscious either, for they are just organic machines. No machine, whether organic or silicon is really conscious in its own right. Any conciousness that appears on the basis of such machines is merely temporarily associated with them and totally independent of them. Consciousness is totally separate from machines, and from brains and bodies. It is a mystery. It always has been. It always will be. While it may arise within such systems it is not caused by them, not synthesized by their components, and cannot be reduced to them. In other words, a Zen State Automaton is impossible.

My argument goes as follows:
The Zen State Automaton
1. A human being (a truly self-aware system) can be aware of their own awareness without any thoughts occuring (ie. without creating or using any information)
2. Computers cannot do anything (thus they certainly cannot sense or know anything) without using information.
3. Therefore computers will never be able to synthesize or replicate self-awareness using any information process. This proves that computers will never be self-aware or conscious in the same way that truly aware beings (such as humans) are. Without true self-awareness computers will never be truly intelligent -- at least not as intelligent as systems that are truly self-aware. Therefore, artificial intelligence will never be truly intelligent by human standards.

In other words, a Zen State Automaton is impossible.

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