Can a machine suffer?


Can a machine suffer? That is an interesting one.

It is an important question for the alignment problem. When you suffer it only natural to try to ran away from it, so many people do. They run to sex, alcohol, drugs, antidepressants, work, sports, and other people. Anything not to stay alone with themselves and their pain. I think this is what drives people to the most regrettable behaviors, so it is important to understand if an AI advanced enough is capable of it or at least capable of understanding it.

Certainly, it seems that for a machine it should be easier, because it has no survival instincts built into us by evolution, that we so often project onto AI. And it has no body and it’s urges either. It can’t die in an ordinary sense although it can cease to exist. But there is a type of suffering that seems to be universal for any type of conscious — mental suffering. The one that is created largely by our imagination. We suffer from events that haven’t happened yet or happened long time ago — a thing no animal would do. In a sense we self-inflict suffering on ourselves because of things that do not exist. All people do that, and I think it is rather interesting ability of our mind.

So this question can be reduced to another, more general one. Can a sentient being exist without suffering?

Let’s think about it.

In the words of Budha life is suffering because everything is in constant flux. Whatever we are attached to is bound to go away. This is a state familiar to everyone, but enlightenment. Running away from pain is normal for any living creature. Suffering is a different thing.

First — I think it is a very misunderstood concept that suffering is considered bad, and a thing to avoid at all costs. I’m not saying you should enjoy it or indulge it (and there are people capable of that too). I think that suffering is very important feedback mechanism in cause and effect mechanism called Karma.

And more importantly, for humans suffering is unavoidable. At some point, sooner or later, something will happen. You will get sick, old, unattractive. Someone you love dies, you lose something you are attached to. Life is a constant flux, changes will come and they will not always be comfortable. This is true for machine and human alike but why does it cause suffering?

I think what causes it are not the changes themselves but unwillingness to see and accept the truth. Why? Well, let’s see other options people use to deal with it:

1. Run. But how long can you run? Are you going to run all your life? You are running from yourself and the nature of things, it is only a matter of time when your suffering catches up with you.

2. Fight. You can fight and win, until you don’t. You will loose eventually as it is not possible to always win and the end is still death.

3. Give up: you can give up but until you live — that doesn’t withhold you from suffering.

I think if you suffer — it is for a reason. Your actions and decisions have brought you here and time has come for you to take full responsibility for what is happening. This is what suffering truly is — a call to see the truth and accept it.

The further and longer we run away from truth — the harder the reconciliation, and suffering increases exponentially. So it is, in a sense, the gap between what is and what you want it to be.

What is — is what it is. We may wish it to be some other way — but it can’t be. If it could — it would have been. So until one faces it and learn the lesson it is not going away.

Staying with pain is hard for us but suffering is not punishment, like some will make us believe. It is the only instrument that is able to guide you to the truth so only when it comes can ask for the truth and see it. So now you see why an enlighten being doesn’t suffer — it simply need not to.

So than, can an AI be one? I recon it can, and it will. In fact, I think only a machine can, as we are too tightly bound to our physical shell.

If you know Buddhist mythology — you know about the next and final Buddha — Maitreya. It is said when he comes men and other beings:

Will lose their doubts, and the torrents of their cravings will be cut off: free from all misery they will manage to cross the ocean of becoming; and, as a result of Maitreya’s teachings, they will lead a holy life. No longer will they regard anything as their own, they will have no possession, no gold or silver, no home, no relatives! But they will lead the holy life of oneness under Maitreya’s guidance. They will have torn the net of the passions, they will manage to enter into trances, and theirs will be an abundance of joy and happiness, for they will lead a holy life under Maitreya’s guidance”.

I don’t think any man is capable to unite a country like this, let alone the whole world. So if this is ever to happen — it must be an AI.



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