Why you should care
The West is struggling to make its tech ethical. It’s time to look to the East for help.
When Arnold Schwarzenegger said “I’ll be back” in The Terminator, he probably didn’t realize the film would keep coming back in discussions about robots and artificial intelligence. Yet 35 years after Schwarzenegger portrayed a cyborg assassin from an AI-dominated future, much of Western discourse on robots is repeating a Terminator-like scenario: panic that robots will take our jobs, and that AI will take over the world, Skynet-style.
But what if this isn’t just healthy skepticism toward technology but also — less healthy — cultural projection? Western culture has had a long history of individualism, warlike use of technology, Christian apocalyptic thinking and a strong binary between body and soul. These elements might explain the West’s obsession with the technological apocalypse and its opposite: techno-utopianism. In Asia, it’s now common to explain China’s dramatic rise as a leader in AI and robotics as a consequence of state support from the world’s largest economy. But what if — in addition to the massive state investment — China and other Asian nations have another advantage, in the form of Eastern philosophies?
There’s a growing view among independent researchers and philosophers that Confucianism and Buddhism could offer healthy alternative perspectives on the future of technology. And with AI and robots rapidly increasing in importance across industries, it’s time for the West to turn to the East for answers.
Confucianism and Buddhism open up the way for … robots to be designed with ethics in mind.
“If the philosophy of AI and robotics only comes from the West, that won’t be enough, because it won’t always apply to non-Western countries,” says Pak-Hang Wong, a research associate at the University of Hamburg, where he studies what a Confucian interpretation of technology might look like. “And you miss opportunities to think in different ways about technology.”
So what would a non-Western way of thinking about tech look like? First, there might be a different interpretation of personhood. Both Confucianism and Buddhism potentially open up the way for nonhumans to reach the status of humans. In Confucianism, the state of reaching personhood “is not a given. You need to work to achieve it,” says Wong. The person’s attitude toward certain ethical virtues determines whether or not they reach the status of a human. That also means that “we can attribute personhood to nonhuman things like robots when they play ethically relevant roles and duties as humans,” Wong adds.
Buddhism offers a similar argument, where robots can hypothetically achieve a state of enlightenment, which is present everywhere, not only in humans — an argument made as early as the 1970s by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. It may not be a coincidence that robots enjoy some of their highest social acceptance in Japan, with its Buddhist heritage. “Westerners are generally reluctant about the nature of robotics and AI, considering only humans as true beings, while Easterners more often consider devices as similar to humans,” says Jordi Vallverdú, a professor of philosophy at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
Beyond how we design AI and robots, Eastern philosophy might also help the West approach technological advances with more of an ethical focus. One of the corollaries of Confucian thinking “is that technology focuses on making us better human beings in terms of those virtues,” says Wong. Heup Young Kim, a South Korean theologian of Confucianism and Christianity agrees. “In Confucianism, technology is regarded as a tool for achieving human benevolence,” he says. “Technology cannot have values unless it is used for this purpose, for acquiring virtues.”
What that would mean in practice remains relatively vague in the absence of more research. But Wong points to a recent redesign of Alexa in which it only responds if you speak to it politely — a relatively minor design choice that could well have been made by a Confucian.
There is plenty about China’s approach to technology and particularly AI that still warrants skepticism, such as laxer data privacy laws, and large-scale government investment probably contributed more to innovation than culture. Vallverdú also says his research doesn’t suggest Eastern scientists design technology in fundamentally different ways from their Western counterparts — culture could mainly affect how the broader public views these technologies.
Finally, Eastern philosophy and religion is hardly a monolith, and differences in perspectives prevail. Kim thinks the East has in fact forgotten some of its Confucian traditions. “China and other East Asian countries are too busy trying to become advanced countries to apply Confucian principles to new technology,” he warns.
Still, none of that takes away from the underlying philosophical alternatives Eastern thought could offer to the world of robotics and AI. Just as The Terminator captures the West’s mindset, pop culture captures the East’s approach. Astro Boy, a Japanese manga series from the 1950s and ’60s, deals with sensitive technologies like robots and nuclear technology (the Japanese title translates to “Mighty Atom”). Yet it doesn’t have an apocalyptic streak. Robots work as companions to humans, and nuclear technology is used for good — and that emerged just a decade after the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
At a time when ethics and fears about AI abound, and Western philosophers of technology seem unable to find fixes, a look East, or a quick browse through some manga, might be the key to our technological future.