Written by Jekonia Tarigan
Today, it is almost impossible to go a day without discovering new things related to artificial intelligence (AI) and it's amazing ability to do things that we never imagined machines could do just a few years before. Almost everyone owns a smartphone, and the engines behind many of the apps on the phone, like Siri or Google Assistant, are in fact driven by AI. Interestingly, to define AI as a technology that can think is too simple. AI promises to tackle the problem of global climate change, drive your car, write text summaries, compose music, among others. Although AI brings many positive advances to daily life, there are related threats. AI has been criticized for destroying humanity as a threat to human dignity, the right to privacy, and even causing millions of people to lose their jobs. [i] The question then is, in what ways can AI and religion connect?
The answer to this question was explored and presented by Soraj Hongladarom, in Wednesday Forum, a weekly discussion forum organized by the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) and the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies (CRCS), on April 6, 2022. Hongladarom is a professor of philosophy and Director of the Center for Ethics of Science and Technology at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand.
In his presentation, Hongladarom explained that his concern is about the role that AI can play regarding religion. However, since he comes from a Buddhist culture, the examples he uses are mostly from Buddhism, but he intends that it will be applicable to other religions, too. Hongladarom argues that AI is an aid to religious work. AI can be used to help the practicing of religion in various ways. An example of this is the robot monk in Japan. The robot can recite Buddhist sutras and practitioners can gather around it to listen to the sutra. Secondly, AI can be used to help with analyzing religious texts, such as doing concordances and searching for passages. This can be of great help for those who have to go through a large number of texts every day. Third, AI can be used as an engine inside apps that help meditation. There are several apps that claim to do this. AI is also useful in the management of religious affairs.
In the context of Thailand, there is a big problem for Buddhism today, which is how to make the religion relevant? According to Hongladarom, perhaps AI can help solve this problem. He uses a recent example from Thailand. There was a launch of virtual monks which targeted a new generation of Buddhists. According to Hongladarom, Buddhist attitudes towards AI or technology in general are neutral because it is clear that technical devices have been used in monasteries for a long time. In general, Buddhists in Thailand do not see AI as a threat, unless it interferes with achieving the goal of practice. Thus, they emphasize that the purpose of using AI is for cultivating the mind.
Along with that, Hongladarom explains that another form of connection between AI and religion is for religion to inform the ethics of AI. Hongladarom argues that today there is already a secular ethics of AI, but there is a need to have religious ethics, especially regarding AI. According to Hongladarom, it can start with the basic attitudes toward AI itself, especially whether we are going to accept the technology into our midst or not? He argues that technology can be made more pliable. Although it is difficult, with concerted effort, it can be done. At least it is better than throwing everything out. Finally, if the question is will AI itself become religious? Hongladarom argues that it depends on how religious people respond to AI, but according to Hongladarom, he would like it to be (in which case being religious is equal to being ethical).
[i] Soraj Hongladarom, The Ethics of AI and Robotics: A Buddhist Viewpoint (Lexington Books, 2020). p. 1