Do you think it could be possible to be reborn as a computer? Probably, most of you immediately answered ‘no,’ but I’m not so sure…
Let’s think for a minute about the nature of rebirth, and what constitutes a person. Before we take rebirth, we spend some time hanging around in the intermediate state, or bardo, waiting for the right karmic conditions to come together for our rebirth. If we have the karma to be a human, for example, then we are waiting for our future parents to do the dirty and for conception to take place; our subtle consciousness then enters into that union of sperm and egg and we start grasping onto it as ‘my body.’ In short, we are waiting for a suitable basis upon which we can impute body.
What is a suitable basis? Well, simply, something that can perform the function of a body. That is quite a broad definition. We can see how it is possible to impute ‘I’ upon a human body or an animal one. An animal body is more limited, it does not provide the scope for the mind to function on such a high level, but it is certainly a body: it provides an interface between the mind and the rest of the world. It is also possible to impute I on other bodies that we do not presently have the karma to see, such as gods, spirits, and nagas. Geshe-la has explained that some beings even use fire or water as the basis for imputing their I (Berlin, 2005).
So, imagine that a computer was built that was complex and adaptable enough to mimic the function of the human brain. Why, then, could some poor bardo being with the appropriate karma not see that lovely silicon circuitry being turned on and think ‘That’s my body.’ Their mind would then enter into that machine – the moment of conception has occurred! – and it would cease to be an inanimate machine and become a living being.
Our body, our brain in particular, is really just a machine with enough complexity and processing power to allow our mind to function at a (relatively) high level.
Does that make it seem like a possibility? Of course, I’m not saying this could happen yet – computers are still pretty basic, really. But I don’t see why they couldn’t develop to a level where they became a suitable basis for imputing I. And of course, I’m not saying this is right – I have no idea if this is actually correct, I’m just throwing out an idea. All I can say is that no-one has yet managed to convince me with logic that I’m definitely wrong… so if you have any arguments to put forward, I would love to hear them!
I think it’s interesting to look at this from a Dharma perspective. Usually, when scientists talk about artificial intelligence, they look at it from (I believe) completely the wrong angle, thinking that they are trying to create consciousness. Most scientists conclude this is impossible – and of course it is. Every stream of consciousness has existed since beginningless time, no computer programmer will ever be able to code a mind into existence. But that’s completely missing the point – because we understand that the mind is separate from the body, all you would actually need to do is create a suitable body, and a mind would come and inhabit it.
I can’t decide if this would constitute a good rebirth or a bad one…