As I See It: Compassionate Computing, Or Dalai On The Desktop
June 10, 2013 Victor Rozek
Phowa is a Sanskrit word meaning “the transference of consciousness at the time of death.” The intersection of science and religion, technology and spirituality, forms an uneasy junction, often distrustful and frequently violent. Historically, science has been derisive of faith, and believers were naturally suspicious of science. Thus, for centuries, few things have been more intransigent to change than religion. It came, if at all, at a glacial pace, resistant to modernity, impervious to reason. And perhaps that was as it should be.
If you believe you have a pipeline to the divine–that revelation is yours alone; and that your tribe above all others has been chosen by God to inhabit the celestial penthouse, then there is little to be gained and much to be lost from updating your belief system. All the more remarkable that the leader of one of the world’s major faiths advocates forsaking ancient beliefs once they have been disproved by science.
The desire to align religious beliefs with reality is an uncommon position held by an uncommon man. His birth name was Lhamo Dondrub. At the age of four, a search party arrived at his home seeking the child who was believed to be the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama. The boy was presented with a collection of toys and artifacts and was able to identify those belonging to the former patriarch of Tibet, reportedly exclaiming “That’s mine, that’s mine!” He was given the name Tenzin Gyatso (Ocean of Wisdom), underwent extensive training and, at the age of 15, was formerly enthroned as the 14th Dalai Lama.
His love of science and technology is said to have begun at an early age, and perhaps marks the origin of his aspiration to steer Tibet toward a spirituality that can be validated by science. It is a work in process. After all, the tenants of Buddhist spirituality date back 2500 years and form the cultural underpinnings of Tibet. Challenging them will undoubtedly have seismic repercussions. Still, he regularly seeks collaboration with scientists. Neuroscientists, for example, have been invited to study the workings of the mind in meditation. Over the years, their findings helped revolutionize the study of neuroplasticity and verified what those committed to a contemplative practice long suspected: thought patterns can indeed change the physical structure of the brain.
But nowhere has the Dalai Lama’s thinking strayed further from the box of orthodoxy than in regard to reincarnation–a belief yet to be proved or disproved by science. Given the ancient and central role reincarnation plays in Buddhism, his recent pronouncement was startling if not heretical. During a portion of an interview that dealt with technology, the Dalai Lama announced that he would not object to reincarnating in a computer when technology became sophisticated enough to permit it.
To understand the gravity of that statement it should be noted that many Tibetans regard him as a living Buddha. For a westerner that would be roughly equivalent to believing that the surrogate of Jesus Christ was sitting in the White House, and he just announced that he’s coming back as Watson, the IBM question-answer machine.
Farfetched perhaps, but not all that dissimilar to Kurzweil’s vision of singularity. Kurzweil hopes that by the 2030s nanobots can be programmed to noninvasively enter the brain and connect our neurons directly to the cloud. His theory is that, over time, our thought patterns and processes will become established in the cloud and once our thinking and our memories are backed up, we will essentially live forever. The Dalai Lama proposes to do it without nanobots.
The Buddhists are not alone in their quest to integrate the power of science and technology with spiritual beliefs. Not to be outdone, the Mormons are also looking for ways to perfect the human condition and extend the human experience. According to Giulio Prisco, writer, futurist, and virtual reality consultant, Mormon doctrine extols “the boundless elevation and exaltation of man, through all means including science and technology, until he becomes like God.” Heady stuff given that people-wanting-to-become-Gods never seems to work out well for the rest of humanity. Nonetheless, the Mormon Transhumanist Association holds annual conferences to, presumably, update their progress. Their stated aim, which sounds surprisingly Dalai Lamaesque, is to “promote radical flourishing in creativity and compassion through technology and religion.”
Reincarnation is an ancient belief, foreign to the western mind, but it’s intriguing to look at it through the eyes of possibilianism, David Eagleman’s philosophy of withholding judgment until conclusive scientific proof can be achieved.
If the Dalai Lama could in fact reincarnate in a computer, it would in all likelihood have to be Tenzin Gyatso’s last reincarnation. Getting into the cloud may prove easier than getting out. There would be no aging, no dying process, no body to abandon, no need for consciousness to find a new host. Given what China inflicted on Tibet–mass murder, torture, and cultural genocide–such an event might disprove the old axiom that the best revenge is living well. Ironically, the best revenge may prove to be reincarnating well. For a country so intent on marginalizing a man with no actual power, it would be China’s worst nightmare: Downloadable Dalai.
It’s hard to predict the impact of a computer, housing a consciousness dedicated to compassion, interacting with machines powered by artificial intelligence. But I could imagine the Chinese erecting firewalls to protect against it.
The irony would prove even richer because in 2007, the Chinese government banned reincarnation without state approval. Not clear on the concept. Tenzin Gyatso responded by saying he has no intention of reincarnating in Tibet. In fact, he may not reincarnate at all. As early as the mid-1970s he told a Polish newspaper that he thought he would be the last of his line. More recently, he has said that it is up to the Tibetan people to decide whether they still find the institution of the Dalai Lama useful and wish it to continue.
Perhaps sensing the end, in 2011 he concluded a four-centuries-old tradition by abandoning his political duties to a subordinate; separating the spiritual from the secular, but not the technological. Or, as CNN’s Piers Morgan half-jokingly said in a recent interview, “So you actually overthrew yourself.” An action that the citizens of many nations would envy.
There’s further irony that a man interested in such disciplines as quantum physics and astronomy himself doesn’t use computers. He befriends movie stars but doesn’t watch movies. He doesn’t listen to music, or surf the Internet. He’s never heard of Simon Cowell. His religion, he says, is kindness, and his lifelong quest is the taming of the mind and its passions. But emerging from a culture steeped in ceremony and tradition, against all odds he has embraced computer technology as a means to validate and perhaps immortalize his beliefs. Seldom has technology been applied to a more intriguing use.
“This skull–small space,” the Dalai Lama once said, “but lot of mysterious things still there.” As gods perish and are reinvented, and people slaughter each other over minute differences in dogma, or tiny concessions to modernity, a man like Tenzin Gyatso who risks taking a giant leap of faith toward technology is certainly proof that God does indeed work in mysterious ways.