Making distinction between machine and human is quite difficult. We are human and not machine only by a hair. If a human fails to notice this hair he is basically a machine… The etymology of the word robot is instructive. Even though etymology is almost entirely a work of the imagination, according to this imagination, the word robot traces back to the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word orbh (source: etymonline.com where orbh is also related to “work” and “slave”), related to the PIE Orbho which means orphan or more accurately “One without a father.” So if I may speculate a meaning from this… (it would be preferable to put this in verse to give it a hypothetical air): Someone fathers an automatic translator, and then the father goes away. His child is the technology of google translate. This child doesn’t know any more than what his father taught him. He can only be a servant, or slave. If the father places his benevolence within his child, then the child can grow and learn new techniques. He is not a robot. Now, who is your father? Christianity has a good answer to that. The Buddhist answer is similar. And the Buddha elaborates:
(Reference: SN 23.2)
Now, a robot has a physical body. It can perceive things with instruments that detect light or sound, etc. then it has an algorithm for its feelings or reactions to its senses. This means that it can generally recognize when it is time to laugh or cry and behave appropriately. Arguably, it has free will, because it has access to random numbers. (the random numbers a computer has access to are sort of pseudo-random, this is debatable). With access to random numbers it can make different decisions depending on when you ask it to do its task. (the “seed” used to make random numbers is usually made by using an extremely precise measurement of the present time, called “machine time”) The only thing missing is complete consciousness. It may have some partial consciousness if it is sufficiently complex…
However, can a robot feel wonder or amazement? This part of consciousness seems to be missing from a robot. Is there a sense of wonder when the slave does its work? The Buddha had an analysis of questions, the 4th category of questions are the big questions that are so big they are useless. A robot would never ask these questions because it would be of no use as a servant. Would we ever want to create a robot that can experience wonder? It would probably result in the robot doing work less well. On not working I have this to offer. Maybe a robot is wondering when it enters a calculation loop that is not terminable, but this would be against our own desires of what a robot ought to be.
This is my main entry into the teachings I have read about Buddhism, although there are teachings that allow extreme wonder about the mountains and trees, ocean and sand: about the physical senses. As my meditation teacher says, sometimes the practice involves looking at the world like a baby. The next step is wonder; wonder is how a baby begins.
The right amount of wonder should be “middle.” I do not mean an opening to all mysteries at once. The middle way is a difficult concept to pin down. The middle way is not the same as having a mediocre feeling. The goal of practice is extreme bliss. We would never get extreme bliss if we practiced a mediocre feeling all day. Same with the amount of wonder we may have… It would be better to leave some mystery to the concept of wonder.
An interesting mathematical example (similar to an example found in many math textbooks at the graduate level) of how difficult it is to seek the middle is the set of numbers I will describe to you now. Starting with on an xy cartesian plane, Place a point at y=1/2 and x=1/2, this point is the middle of the interval from x=0 to x=1. Then we continue to find middles, between x=0 and x=1/2, and between x=1/2 and x=1. These middles are found with two new points having y=1/4 and the x-coordinates are x=1/4 and x=3/4. If we continue this process of finding middles, there will be so many points near y=0, along the x-axis, that it is arguably continuous. However there are many many discrete points as well. It is arguably between continuous and discrete. This shows the difficulty of finding the middle.
And that middle is sometimes big and sometimes small, and sometimes it is something “off the continuum” (Ref Thannisaro Bikkhu 2012 ), depending on the relevant dichotomies, even the dichotomies of relevance and irrelevance. “Off the continuum” would be a situation of extreme wonder at ideas, since the continuum is another mere idea. I would venture to say that wonder is always part of experiencing beauty. A big question is often appropriate and can serve the purpose of beauty, and also truth, or not serve at all. It is enough to enter a state of wonder, as gazing at the stars wont serve any purpose, or being off any continuum of beauty, truth, love… any and all pairs of opposites in the cosmic dance.
Maybe a robot wonders when it enters a computational loop that isn’t terminable, but that would go against our own desires of what a robot should be.
Part of wondering is unlearning, as the ancients cherished “learned ignorance.” A robot can’t unlearn with its available faculties.
What is wonder, anyway? Why are we taught that wonder is anxiety? It can be a beautiful conscious state to be in. And why should we try to reduce our sense of wonder with scientific posturing and rhetoric about knowing so much (some of the things we consider knowledge can be the result of pessimism– such as the mathematical definition of the continuum.)
I believe this wonder is part of a poet’s work and part of a human translator’s work on poetry. This wonder of a human hand in working is conveyed to the readers, who experience something that is entirely human.
May this piece gladden good folk.