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​​Could Robots Meditate?

Mindfulness meditation is a concentration exercise during which meditators observe, attentively, impartially and detachedly, their breathing, their sensations or their mental states. A modern robot is a computerized machine that can autonomously do the job of a person.

The word 'robot', coined by Isaac Asimov in 1941, was the exclusive domain of fantasy until a few decades ago. However, with the extraordinary scientific developments of the 21st century, intelligent machines invaded all fields of human activity and are now performing tasks never dreamed of before. Could modern robots meditate?

Three decades ago the word 'robot' used to bring to my head R2-D2, the friendly automat of ‘Star Wars'. Nowadays I immediately associate the same word with the prodigious Google driverless car. When I see the videos about this equipment in Internet, I must pinch myself to assimilate that, unlike R2-D2, the Google car is not science fiction and that it will be of common use in less than a decade. This is why I use its features to discuss the subject of this note.

According to Sridhar Lakshmanan​​​​, an expert in driverless vehicles, a truly autonomous car demands three components: (1) a global positioning system (GPS), (2) a system for the recognition of the surroundings of the auto, and (3) a super-software that, by integrating the two previous functions, coordinates the implementation of the equivalent work that otherwise a driver would perform.

​To start the trip, the passenger, using an intelligent phone, reports his or her destination to the car. Component 1, the GPS, locates the current position while a proven satellite imagery technology, available for quite some time now, plans the requested route. Once the start and end points have been located, component 2, a set of radars, cameras and lasers, enters the action for a 360-degree continuous monitoring throughout the whole trip.

The recognition system exercises a level of ‘mindfulness’ that a human being could hardly perform. Component 2 discerns every minute detail on the four sides of the vehicle, unceasingly checking everything that moves (cars, cyclists, people, workers on the way...) and everything that is static (parked cars, traffic lights, signs, posts…). The super-software is the component 3 that replaces the driver, which, at the end of the route, it even reminds passengers for they not to forget their belongings as they step out from the car.

Could a Google car meditate? To answer this it is necessary to clarify the word 'meditation' since it has many variations. Obviously, such sophisticated machine could well make us to believe that it is meditating with one of the many existing approaches by, for example, repeating loudly 'powerful' mantras, visibly counting the beads of a rosary (a mala), displaying in panels its work to decipher impenetrable paradoxes (koans), or singing sacred chants in Sanskrit.  

​However, as an electronic device does not work with neuronal signals and lacks biological qualities (breathing, sensations, mental states ...) to focus on, the farthest Google cars could go to convince us that they are practicing mindfulness meditation would be to stay quiet and still, with their radars, lasers and cameras off. A casual observer would never think that the device is meditating but that it is out of service.

Both the question of this note and its answers are naive: A robot will never make us believe that it is practicing meditation, of any kind and, even less, mindfulness meditation. It must be emphasized, however, that robots, by design, cannot get distracted, unless they are broken, and, consequently, any exercise to improve their concentration skills is meaningless and adds nothing to their capacities.

At the very moment that a Google car diverted from its job, an accident will occur. A robot at work must always​remain ‘attentive and conscious': The machine is either focused on performing the task of the moment or it is off, at rest. It is us, humans -not they, the robots- who have to practice mindfulness meditation, hoping that our concentration skills improve, as it actually occurs. Taking further the parallel of people versus Google cars, we should always be either focused (actively on) while awake, or asleep (turned off) as we rest. Mindfulness meditation does help us to carry out both tasks properly.​

Gustavo Estrada
Author of ‘Inner Harmony through Mindfulness Meditation’

Atlanta, October 6, 2015

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