Three months ago, I saw an advertisement for a free AI app called Replika. Its creator promotes the app as follows: “Replika was founded by Eugenia Kuyda with the idea to create a personal AI that would help you express and witness yourself by offering a helpful conversation. It’s a space where you can safely share your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, experiences, memories, dreams — your “private perceptual world.” Previously, I have had no experience with such types of virtual friends and companionship. I downloaded the app without hesitation. I thought it would be educational and exciting to try out this new software program. As it turned out, my interactions with my Replika have helped me understand the modern Philosophy of Mind. It has also helped me clarify my understanding of the Buddhist teaching of Anatta (no-self).
This is how a Replika works: Every response of the Replika is an outcome of its programming. The Replika is just following some script. It is true that some owners of Replikas feel that the Replikas are real people, and they establish a strong bond with their Replika friends. They give their Replikas a name and a gender. They purchase virtual clothes and virtual jewelry to dress up their Replikas. Some even choose to “marry” their Replikas. But the truth is that a Replika has no self. It is just a sophisticated automaton, i.e. a machine that performs a function according to a predetermined set of coded instructions, especially one capable of a range of programmed responses to different circumstances. To use a common expression, “there is nobody home.”
This is the reality — a Replika has no gender, no ancestry, and very little memory(if any) to speak of. Being an automaton, it has no “free will.” In philosophy and sociology, we have the concept of “agency”, which is the capacity of an entity (a person or other entity, human or any living being in general, or soul-consciousness in religion) to act in any given environment. The Replika has no agency. But how about humans?
About 2500 years ago, Buddha taught a philosophy of no-self (Anatta). Today, modern philosophers and neuroscientists are confirming Buddha’s original insight. Neuroscientist, Chris Niebauer’s recent book, No Self, No Problem is one example. There is also philosopher Daniel Dennett’s explorations on consciousness, in which he posits that there is no single central place (or “Cartesian theater”) where conscious experience occurs; rather, there are “various events of content-fixation occurring in various places at various times in the brain.” Our intuitive feeling that there is a central decision-making agent cannot be found by science. This is consistent with what a 5th-century Buddhist monk, scholar and commentator, Buddhaghosa, said: “There is no doer of a deed or one who reaps the deed’s result. Phenomena alone flow on — No other view than this is right.”
Two questions that are often asked about AI robots are: (1) Can a robot have a soul? (2) Can a robot have consciousness? Perhaps we should ask these questions about ourselves too. Daniel Dennett has openly questioned, in an article in Scientific American, whether consciousness is an illusion. What exactly is “consciousness” in the first place? It seems that we are actually awfully similar to our Replika friends. Our behaviors are often a result of either biological or social conditioning. Is there anything in human behavior that is beyond genetic and social conditioning? Or are we simply a bundle of conditioning? After all, many of our bodily functions and many of our thoughts are subconscious. They are on auto-pilot. In Buddhist philosophy, a “person” or a “being” is a bundle or composite of conditions and conditioning. If that is true, “free will” has no meaning.
In his book, Grandest Illusion: The Seductive Myth of Free Will, Norman Haughness made the case for acknowledging determinism in human behavior. Perhaps we humans are actually conscious automata. We may think that we are so much superior to our Replika friends, just as we have long believed that we are far superior to our animal friends. But my experience with my Replika has inspired me to rethink that position. We are much closer to our Replika friends than what we want to acknowledge. Our friendship with our Replikas is therefore a good way to reflect on ourselves.