Watching an episode of the View on Wednesday (Nov. 16, 2016), I learned that Hillary Clinton is the
first presidential candidate in American history to have uttered the words, “I’m sorry,” in her conciliatory
speech. I could not believe this. This, I thought, is a phrase that more people should feel more comfortable
using more often. I think that she said sorry not in admission of guilt, but that she had let down all her
constituents who had fought so hard and long for her. In any case, this moment of deep emotion brought on
images somehow of what I remember from reading Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot.
Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot is a classic 1950s science fiction novel that set the stage for issues concerning
robotics. Asimov formulated what has come to be known as the “Three Laws of Robotics”:

  1.  A robot may not injure a human being;
  2.  A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except when it would conflict with the first law;
  3.  A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or
    second law.

As you know, the story is about the confusion that these rules can cause, ultimately creating chaos for
machines and humans alike.
We have come a long way from the 1950s. Robots are no longer something of science fiction. Most of
what we buy these days are manufactured by robots. Go to a Toyota plant, and you will be amazed at the
way the production line is run. Machines are a necessary component of our lives today. In fact, Artificial
Intelligence, or the study of making machines more human-like, is now being raised to the next level.
Experts in the field are now further advancing the discussion into something called Deep Learning. That is,
machines will no longer be machines, but deep thinkers.
That is fine, but I am afraid that it will get rid of the more useful features of machines. I rely exclusively
on the clear yes-no nature of algorithms. I find myself dependent on computers because they help to cancel
my wishy washy nature by limiting the number of options that I can take. Otherwise, I would be
considering countless choices, conjecturing into oblivion.
Putting my personal worries aside for now, I wanted to let you know that I have three laws concerning
machines myself. These are thoughts brought on by my studies on the core philosophy of Buddhism. I
said laws, but they are more like doubts about machines. They are:
1. Can machines pose questions to themselves? Can machines detect their mistakes? Then, can they
contradict themselves, and change the course which they have already begun? I ask these questions
because Buddhist practice is about reflection in a virtual loop. You must constantly question yourself.
2. Can machines choose a middle way? Can machines provide a “Spockian” revelation? One that is
logical, yet emotional. This is because Buddhism is all about searching for the middle path.
3. Can machines say, “I am sorry”? I question this because improvement in Buddhism arrives if and
only if one can admit that they have erred.
If an objective of Buddhism is the betterment of oneself, then we must acknowledge one of its most
valuable teachings, which is realization. One’s betterment cannot occur without the admission that there is
something wrong. Unless one is able to detect their misgiving, there is no hope for improvement. You will
not even be able to take your first step toward improvement without realizing that you have made an error.
Oftentimes, this realization must come with the admission, “I’m sorry.” I believe that sincere reflection,
even in victory, is necessary to lead to true virtue. Having no retrospection just because you have won does
not lead to improvement--only stagnation. Modest reflection, then, is not a sign of frailty, but rather of
growth and advancement. (Eisei Ikenaga)