Applying Ancient Chinese Philosophy To Artificial Intelligence


Bing Song is the director of the Berggruen Institute China Center and the editor of “Intelligence and Wisdom: AI Meets Chinese Philosophers.”

BEIJING — There has been much discussion on the global stage around China’s ambition to lead artificial intelligence and robotics innovation over the coming decades. But few if any of the discussions by Chinese philosophers on the threats of AI and approaches to AI ethics have managed to penetrate Western-language media.

Like many Western commentators, many Chinese philosophers (mostly trained in Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism) have expressed deep concern over diminishing human autonomy and free will in the age of data manipulation and automation, as well as the potential loss of purpose and meaning of human life in the long run. Others are concerned about humankind’s eagerness to tinker with the human genome and the natural evolution process to achieve much-desired longevity and physical wellbeing. Confucian scholars seem to be the most alarmed as certain developments in AI and robotics, especially those related to familial relationships and elder care, directly threaten the foundation of Confucianism, which emphasizes the importance of bloodlines and familial norms.

More interesting, however, are the following three drastically different lines of thinking, which help explain why there has been much less panic in China than in the West in response to perceived existential risks from frontier technologies like artificial intelligence.

Anthropocentrism Vs. Non-Anthropocentrism

Anthropocentrism dictates that human beings are viewed as separate from and above nature. Homo sapiens, with their unique rationality, self-consciousness and subjectivity, are placed above other animals, plants and other forms of beings. Anthropocentrism reached its peak in the age of industrialization and globalization. While this human-centric mindset has softened somewhat in developed nations in recent decades, it is still prevalent in rapidly industrializing China and elsewhere.

However, Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism all subscribe to the notion of non-anthropocentrism. In classical Chinese thinking, the typical construct for understanding the relationship among humans, nature and society is the so-called trinity of heaven, earth and man. This notion was derived from one of the most ancient Chinese classics — “I Ching” or “Book of Changes” — which is the intellectual fountain for the most influential schools of thought in China, including Confucianism and Daoism.

Heaven, earth and man, along with the associated yin and yang forces, were viewed as the most basic constituents of the universe, within which nature evolves, human beings prosper and societies develop. Within this construct, human beings are inherently part of and bound up with nature. Human beings can only flourish and be sustained if they follow the laws of nature and achieve a unity of nature and man.

Mankind, in between heaven and earth, is endowed with a unique ability to learn from nature, take action to further the causes of the flourishing and sustainability of heaven and earth and propagate the “dao” or “way.” In the Confucian context, dao entails ethical teachings of benevolence and righteousness. While proactiveness on the part of human beings has been much emphasized in the Confucian tradition, it is still premised on respect and awe for the laws of nature and making adjustments in view of those laws rather than carrying out foolhardy expropriation of nature. Human beings should take cues from seasonal changes and live accordingly.

The mentality of being in tune with changing times and circumstances reverberates profoundly in Confucian teaching. Indeed, Confucius was praised as the “timeous sage” by Mencius, another Chinese maestro of Confucianism. What Confucius preached and practiced was not dogma but rather the knowledge and wisdom most appropriate for the relevant time and context.

The notion of unity between nature and man is even more prominent in Daoism. According to Laozi, the founding philosopher of Chinese Daoism, “Man takes his law from the earth; the earth takes its law from heaven; heaven takes its law from the dao. The law of the dao is its being what it is.” Dao is immanent in heaven, earth and man, which are mutually embedded and constitutive and should move in harmony. Zhuangzi, a philosopher who lived in the fourth century BCE, further reinforced the notion of the unity of nature and man. He advocated that heaven, earth and man were born together and that the universe and man were one.

“None of the three dominant schools of Chinese philosophical thinking place human beings in a supreme position within the universe.”

Buddhism, which was introduced to China from India around the middle of the Han Dynasty, attaches even less importance to the primacy of human beings over other forms of existence. A core Buddhist teaching is the equality of all sentient beings, of which humans are merely one, and that all sentient beings have Buddha’s nature. Buddhism exhorts people to practice care and compassion to other forms of sentient beings.

In sum, none of the three dominant schools of Chinese philosophical thinking place human beings in a supreme position within the universe, nor do they view human beings and nature as being in a mutually independent or competitive relationship. Placed in the context of developing frontier technologies, artificial intelligence is not a “natural” development, so from a viewpoint of unity between humans and nature, AI should be guided and sometimes suppressed by a respect for the natural ways of life. Indeed, this is precisely what many philosophers in China have been advocating for.

However, it is also true that probably because of the strong influence of non-anthropocentrism in Chinese traditional belief systems, there has been much less panic in the East than in the West about the existential risk of AI. For one thing, many Chinese philosophers are simply not convinced by the prospect of machine intelligence exceeding that of humans. Also, human beings have always lived with other forms of existence that may be more capable in some ways than we are. In Daoist teaching, where immortals abound, AI or digital beings could be just another form of super-being. Some Confucian and Daoist scholars have started thinking about incorporating AI into the ethical order of the ecosystem by potentially viewing AIs as companions or friends.

Relative Openness To Uncertainty And Change

Another likely reason for the comparatively less panic relating to frontier technologies in China is the culture’s high level of acceptance of uncertainty and change. This can again be traced back to “I Ching.” According to its core teaching, the ultimate existence of the universe is that of constant change rather than the notion of “being,” which is a static existence and widely acknowledged in 20th-century European thinking.

The influence of “I Ching” is felt in many aspects of Confucianism, such as the doctrine relating to proactiveness on the part of man in anticipating and managing changes, which I call humanistic dynamism. In the words of Richard Wilhelm, a German missionary who lived in China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and who is credited with the first translation in Europe of the “I Ching”: “There is no situation without a way out. All situations are stages of change. Therefore, even when things are most difficult, we can plant the seed for a new situation.”

Since the Han Dynasty, Daoism has been characterized as a way of thinking that emphasizes advancing with the times and changing according to the circumstances. The Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi’s teachings on forward-looking adaptation and refusing inflexibility have become central in Chinese culture today. The thinking is that change and uncertainty are not problems needing to be corrected but rather are part and parcel of reality and normalcy.

In Buddhism, the concept of the impermanence of our perceived reality is a core tenet. In addition, the illusionary nature of our perceived reality further reduces the significance of changes in life in Buddhist thinking.

Perhaps these ways of thinking are another reason why the Chinese are not as alarmed about the possible future of a machine age as their Western counterparts.

Self-Reflection, Self-Cultivation And Self-Enlightenment

The Chinese philosopher Thomé Fang has pointed out that a commonality of the three dominant philosophical traditions in China is their emphasis on the importance of self-restraint, constant introspection and the endless pursuit of sage-hood. All three traditions are premised on the notion that social good begins in and is bound up with individual self-cultivation.

Thus, many Chinese philosophers emphasize that at this juncture of thinking about existential risks for human beings and the future direction of technological advancement, it is most important that we look inward and reflect upon ourselves, drawing lessons from human evolution and development. In other words, humans need to reflect upon our own past and realize that we may be the crux of the problem — that we will not be able to create morally sound AI unless we ourselves are ethically reflective and responsible.

As we face more global challenges, perhaps we should open up new avenues of thinking and take inspiration from ancient philosophical traditions. It’s time to confront and replace our zero-sum competition mentality, propensity for maximizing wealth creation and unbridled individualism. The best chance for developing human-friendly AI and other forms of frontier technologies is for humans themselves to become more compassionate and committed to building an inclusive and harmonious global ecosystem.