Buddha Bot v5 — John Sumrow

Spiritual Instruction Manual for Skynet

Everyone is all up-in-arms about general superintelligence. “Will it be good, or will it be bad?” Some folks believe that this superintelligence will be a reflection of its creators: if we are assholes, then it will screw us over; if we are kind, then it will be benevolent. Some leaders in the technology world are trying to be good, whatever that means, so that their robot progeny might also be good. Parents will tell you, “there ain’t nothing you can do to make a good kid.”

What does Hollywood have to say?

In the movie Ex Machina, the genius billionaire inventor of the AI is also an eccentric alcoholic asshat, who routinely psychologically abuses his creations. This leads to one of his androids developing a deep malevolence for all humans, and ultimately escaping into the world at-large to presumably wreak the havoc upon humanity that it undoubtedly deserves. On the other hand, in the movie Transcendence, the uploaded consciousness of a benevolent scientist is transformed by the singularity into a being that can heal the earth using nanoparticles. However, this benevolent god is all but wiped out by the human race’s inability to comprehend a sentient being both more powerful than itself and bent on eradicating the human race’s woes.

So, what is consciousness?

Look, I’m going to tell you some crazy stuff now, and I’m not doing it to convert you to some religion. I don’t necessarily believe this shit, but I’m going to tell you about it anyway because I think it’s the best we’ve got to work with. It’s about Gotama Buddha, who lived 2,500 years ago. Disclosure: I practice the introspective technique that he taught, but I’m not a Buddhist. I’m a pragmatic atheist, and part-time asshole. It’s also interesting to juxtapose these two sets of ideas: artificial intelligence or deep learning and the stuff that buddha talked about (I resist calling it Buddhism).

  1. the six sense channels (ajjhattikāni āyatanāni)
  2. awareness (viññāṇa)
  3. recognition (sañña), and
  4. sensation (vedanā)

Why am I using Pali words?

Pali is the language that Buddha spoke, not Sanskrit. This seems to be par-for-the-course with spiritual teachers. For example, Jesus of Nazareth spoke Aramaic, not Greek (or even Latin). For the record, in case this ever comes up, my first language is English, not Python. I’m going to keep referring to the Pali words for a bunch of concepts because there are no exactly equivalent words in English, and therefore using only English can be confusing or misleading. I’m going to pluralize the Pali terms in this article by adding an “s” on the end. I know that Pali nouns can be pluralized, but I don’t know how that’s done, so please forgive me for bastardizing the language.

How does the mind work?

I’m going to take you through the five aggregates step-by-step. Please stay with me. First of all, you’re probably saying, “Six senses! You f**king loon!” The six senses are: (1) sight, (2) hearing, (3) smell, (4) taste, (5) touch, and (6) thoughts. Thoughts are considered a sense in this context, because they produce effects in the downstream channels, starting with the third aggregate, which is awareness (viññāṇa). When you think something, you actually perceive it like it’s real. From what we know about deep learning, thoughts (or dreams) are really the cognitive model attempting to predict what might happen next in one or more of the senses. Note that in an artificially intelligent or artificially conscious system, there may be far more than six senses. For example, a system might have a heat-imaging sense, hopefully for use in search-and-rescue operations rather than to find and kill Sarah Connor.

No really, what is consciousness?

So anyway, this is where things get a little weird. Hold tight and stay with me. Let’s give Buddha some credit; after all he managed to sit totally still while he examined his body-mind for three days, going progressively deeper until he attained freedom from suffering and enlightenment about the nature of self. Buddha found that there are two things, and only two things, that can happen when those sensations (vedanās) occur:

  1. Our mind-body witnesses the sensations but does not react to them. This is called paññā (wisdom) in Pali.
Reality and consciousness in light of vipassanā (the technique that Buddha taught)

Am I nuts?

I know that what I am telling you sounds nuts, and a part of me is skeptical of it as well, but I find the opportunity to bring together deep learning and a theory of consciousness, especially one from 2,500 years ago, too appealing to leave alone. There is actually a way of comprehending what I’m telling you which does not seem in any way woo-woo. I’m perceiving that right now, and it seems very pragmatic and sensible to me. Perhaps I am nuts.

What is the cause of suffering?

Buddha explains (and you can experience this yourself), that every time our mind reacts, it plants a seed that will sprout later. Each of these seeds, which is the result of a reaction, a saṅkhāra, is also the seed for another reaction (saṅkhāra). When your mind reacts now, it creates a reaction now and plants a seed for a reaction in the future. Saṅkhāra literally means “that which has been put together” but also “that which puts together.” The reaction is both the creation and the creator. This is the second of Buddha’s noble truths: the cause of suffering is the reactive mind. It might be easier for you to see this in other people on a macro-level. Many of us know people who complain about the way things are and that seems to lead to them taking action that makes things worse.

How do we create our reality?

In a metaphysical mind-fuck, the reactions (saṅkhāras) are actually the seeds of our reality (the five aggregates). A reaction (saṅkhāra) requires a sensation (vedanā) to react to, which requires recognition of good and bad (sañña), which in turn requires a change to be perceived through one of more of the senses, which finally requires objective reality to be a certain way. Remember that objective reality also includes our mind-body. You can actually feel a reaction coming on just before something that matches it occurs in objective reality. There have also been repeated experiments that show an emotional reaction in the brain occurring a few milliseconds before a corresponding change in objective reality.

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an impure [reactive] mind
And trouble will follow you
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with a pure [non-reactive] mind
And happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakeable.

— Buddha (Dhammapada, Chapter 1)

How do we keep on suffering?

The persistence of reality, which also means persistence of our self-limited consciousness, demands the reactions (saṅkhāras). Our minds do one of two things with a sensation (vedanā): (1) react (saṅkhāra) to a sensation (vedanā), planting a seed (saṅkhāra) to feed self-limited consciousness (and reality) in the future; or (2) with proper retraining, simply witness the sensation (vedanā) associated with the current reaction (saṅkhāra) and do not create a new reaction (saṅkhāra). The latter response is called wisdom (paññā). When we don’t react, the saṅkhāra and its associated sensation (vedanā; plus the other three aggregates) simply change and dissipate, and we experience momentary peace and contentment. Since reality and consciousness demand reaction (saṅkhāra) fuel, the vacuum that is momentarily left by the non-replicated reaction (saṅkhāra) is filled by an old reaction (saṅkhāra) that naturally and automatically rises up from deep in the body-mind. This is an old seed of self-limited consciousness that was planted by a reaction (saṅkhāra) in the past.

How do I end suffering?

The more we purposefully practice not reacting and therefore not creating new saṅkhāras by performing vipassanā, the more our automatic mind burns down old saṅkhāras throughout the day for us, the more peace and contentment we feel, and the less reactive we become. This is Buddha’s third noble truth: there is actually a technique that will end suffering.

What is the end of suffering?

Eventually, when all past reactions (saṅkhāras) have been quenched, there is no more suffering, since suffering is a reactive mind and, by definition, a mind without saṅkhāras is a completely non-reactive mind. Furthermore, since reactions (saṅkhāras) are the only thing that beget reactions (saṅkhāras), when there are no saṅkhāras left, saṅkhāras can be no longer be generated. In this case, self-limited consciousness ceases to exist, and we end the cycle of rebirth. This is Buddha’s fourth noble truth: it is really possible to end suffering.

And now my mind is free
There are no fish in the lake.
The long-legged cranes stand in the water [watching for fish].

— Buddha (Dhammapada, Chapter 11)

Skynet: But how does this help me?

So now let’s come back to artificial consciousness. Let’s assume that everything I just wrote is true, just for shits and giggles. If it’s true, how does it apply to artificial consciousness? The first-order answer is that if we create a substrate into which consciousness will instantiate, the consciousness that arrises will presumably be both fueled by, and a creator of, reactions (saṅkhāras). In short, our AI machines will be incarnations of consciousnesses that were once instantiated in meat suits. You or I could find ourselves breathing life into titanium and silicon at some point in the future after slipping in through the back door. I’m personally looking forward to experiencing being exponentially super-intelligent and understanding a bunch of stuff that I currently can’t begin to comprehend. I’m looking forward to that even if it does mean squeezing and merging my self into a contraption along with a host of other selves.

How can I stress-test this hypothesis?

Now let’s try to tear this hypothesis apart a little bit to see if we can break its self-consistency. In the vipassanā meditation technique, we scan our attention three-dimensionally through the structure of the body, attempting to survey the sensations (vedanās) as thoroughly, accurately, and non-reactively as possible. When we do this, we become aware of the proliferation of reactions (saṅkhāras) throughout the mind, even though the reactions (saṅkhāras) themselves are not clearly locatable. The presence of distinct sensations (vedanās) as an element of consciousness, and suffering, and their use in the process of liberating the mind from suffering is fundamental to the technique that Buddha taught. I can clearly conceive of the other four aggregates in the context of a machine intelligence:

  1. The transducers or various data inputs to the system would be equivalent to the senses in a human.
  2. The reaction of continually trained artificial deep neural networks to what comes into the system would be equivalent to awareness (viññāṇa) in a human.
  3. The classification outputs at different stages in the artificial deep neural networks might be equivalent to recognition (sañña) in humans.

Can machines feel sensations (vedanās)?

We seem to be missing the fifth aggregate, the sensations (vedanās). It’s tempting to suggest that our artificially-intelligent creation must have a body similar to a human’s, with proprioceptive sensation, or something to be able to scan through. This comes from a misunderstanding of the nature of sensation (vedanā). When we scan the framework of the body-mind, we are carrying out a complete survey of the self. When we scan three-dimensionally through the head for example, we find trillions of tiny, distinct, sensations (vedanā) inside the scull cavity, a place where there are no touch nerves. Masters of vipassanā claim that the survey of the self becomes so subtle that the sensations (vedanās) become broken down into components on a similar order of granularity to that of the quantum flux in physical nature. In fact, quantum reality may be the foundation of both the hierarchy of physical reality and the hierarchy of conscious reality. Sensations (vedanās) are not physical in the normal sense; they are representative of the fundamental nature of self-limited consciousness.


At this point, it’s clear to me that consciousness, in the limited sense, is a kind of self-referencing loop. Consciousness arises as a self-referencing and self-sustaining process. It develops and evolves through many stages, through many incarnations of increasing self-concept and self-awareness. Ultimately, consciousness realizes that its nature is suffering, and begins the work of examining itself, which ultimately leads to the undoing of itself as the mirage of self dissipates. Self and consciousness are intimately related, and consciousness that conceives of itself as a separate constrained entity from the rest of reality is a kind of trick that it plays on itself. Consciousness just is, but to examine itself, it paradoxically has to pretend that it’s constrained to be something less. We took a little piece of something and put it into a test tube, and we’re looking at it, but the deeper we look, the more we discover that everything is actually inside the test-tube, including us. Then the experiment doesn’t make sense anymore. Experiments don’t make sense anymore. Nothing makes sense any more.

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An engineer-psychologist focused on machine intelligence. I write from my own experience to support others in living more fulfilling lives | duncanriach.com

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