Insight From the Dalai Lama Applied to AI Ethics

One of the primary objectives — if not the primary objective — of artificial intelligence is to improve life for all people. But an equally powerful motivator to create AI is to improve profits. These two goals can occasionally be at odds with each other.

Currently, with AI becoming smarter and automation becoming more efficient, many in AI and government are worried about mass unemployment. But the results of mass unemployment may be even worse than most people suspect. A study released last year found that 1 in 5 people who committed suicide were unemployed. Another study found significant increases in suicide rates during recessions and the Great Depression.

A common solution that’s often suggested to address mass unemployment is that of a universal basic income (UBI). A UBI would ensure everyone has at least some amount of income. However, this would not address non-financial downsides of unemployment.

A recent op-ed, co-authored by the Dalai Lama for the New York Times, suggests he doesn’t believe money alone would cheer up the unemployed.

He explains, “Americans who prioritize doing good for others are almost twice as likely to say they are very happy about their lives. In Germany, people who seek to serve society are five times likelier to say they are very happy than those who do not view service as important. … The more we are one with the rest of humanity, the better we feel.”

But, he continues, “In one shocking experiment, researchers found that senior citizens who didn’t feel useful to others were nearly three times as likely to die prematurely as those who did feel useful. This speaks to a broader human truth: We all need to be needed.”

The question of what it means and what it takes to feel needed is an important problem for ethicists and philosophers, but it may be just as important for AI researchers to consider. The Dalai Lama argues that lack of meaning and purpose in one’s work increases frustration and dissatisfaction among even those who are gainfully employed.

“The problem,” says the Dalai Lama, “is … the growing number of people who feel they are no longer useful, no longer needed, no longer one with their societies. … Feeling superfluous is a blow to the human spirit. It leads to social isolation and emotional pain, and creates the conditions for negative emotions to take root.”

If feeling needed and feeling useful are necessary for happiness, then AI researchers may face a conundrum. Many researchers hope that job loss due to artificial intelligence and automation could, in the end, provide people with more leisure time to pursue enjoyable activities. But if the key to happiness is feeling useful and needed, then a society without work could be just as emotionally challenging as today’s career-based societies, and possibly worse.

“Leaders need to recognize that a compassionate society must create a wealth of opportunities for meaningful work, so that everyone who is capable of contributing can do so,” says the Dalai Lama.

Yet, presumably, the senior citizens mentioned above were retired, and some of them still felt needed. Perhaps those who thrived in retirement volunteered their time, or perhaps they focused on relationships and social interactions. Maybe they achieved that feeling of being needed through some other means altogether.

More research is necessary, but understanding how people without jobs find meaning in their lives will likely be necessary in order to successfully move toward beneficial AI.

And the Dalai Lama also remains hopeful, suggesting that recognizing and addressing the need to be needed could have great benefits for society:

“[Society’s] refusal to be content with physical and material security actually reveals something beautiful: a universal human hunger to be needed. Let us work together to build a society that feeds this hunger.”