The Real Meaning of Amazon’s “Monk Delivery Service”

Article by Shokei Matsumoto. Originally published on the internet temple Higanji in December, 2015.

            Amazon has come to sell all sorts of goods and services, and it is safe to say that it will only continue to increase the scale and scope of its operations. This trend can’t be stopped, and any effort to do so would be meaningless: the internet, through the proliferation of smart phones and wearable devices, has permeated not just our daily lives, but our very values, and it continues to do so at a faster and faster rate. With this in mind, the news of Amazon’s new service marks the very beginning of the beginning, and is merely the logical extension of what’s happening in our daily lives; it is a change that lies far within the realm of imagination, and nothing to worry about at that. 

            Amazon isn’t selling monks (human trafficking is prohibited), but rather Buddhist memorial services: one of many that monks perform. It deemed the barrier to entry in the largely standardized and commoditized market to be low enough, and so has began to run a dispatch service, selling fixed-rate packages that can be bought, conveniently, online. That’s all. This is nothing new. Whatever lies within the realm of imagination will certainly be realized in the near future. I expect you don’t have the time to be surprised at such a development, or to earnestly argue about its validity. If you have such time, why don’t you try to imagine, and be excited for, the next change, and the change after the next change?

            The trend of humans living in an increasingly commoditized society isn’t going to stop here. Recently, a ranking was released of jobs that will likely disappear in the next ten years due to dramatic developments in AI and robot technology, but it doesn’t seem like it will take that long for highly commoditized fields like funeral services to be automated. If it’s only a matter of performing rituals and reciting scripture flawlessly, robots will be much more reliable than humans for the task. Twenty years from now, maybe Amazon will begin to sell actual monks. And more than this, maybe before you buy that AI monk, a learning android that can perfectly replicate your deceased loved one will become popular and the relationship between the dead and the living, and humans’ views towards life and death will be radically altered. Because of all this, arguments based on the premise of how monks live now have become largely meaningless. Services like ETER9, an artificial intelligence program that generates posts for a deceased person on social media, are already being offered: the speed at which our views towards life and death change quickens.

            So, is it the destiny of monks to disappear in the not-so-distant future? In a sense, yes. Put simply, as long as monks are outperformed by robots, it’s possible that their roles might end within ten years. There’s no easier job for a robot to take over than that of the monk who reads scripture like a machine. Maybe the progress of AI robots will overtake human monks’ “specs”, but before then, I think that robot outsourcing will lead to a dramatic drop in the value of the job on the market, and so the industry will simply cease to be viable for humans. It’s being said that the spread of AI and automatic cars will put an end to the career of the driver, but, when considered in terms of the degree of difficulty for AI substitution, perhaps monks will disappear even faster.

            But, will monks really be put out of work by AI intelligence? Some might say, “No! If the monk who reads scripture isn’t a real human, than there’s no warmth in it,” but, unfortunately, the reality is that this way of thinking isn’t going to hold up ten years from now. Through the development of AI, the relationship between humans and robots will change completely, and in the near future it won’t be uncommon for humans to feel “warmth” in their relationships with robots. As these “warm” robots are brought through technological advances to be closer and closer to humans, and as the two merge, humans will necessarily become ever more reliant on robots. The predictions robots can make based on big data are extraordinarily accurate, and even though the processes by which they determine these constitute a “black box” that surpasses human understanding, in the end the majority of humans will rely on robots’ judgments for important decisions with the same mentality as the politician who relies on the fortune teller, or perhaps with an even greater degree of dependency. As this situation progresses, there will certainly come a time when the basic question of what defines a human is asked seriously.

            Despite all of this, it is in these times, that I find myself resolutely denying that monks will be replaced by robots. Each human has the capacity to overcome his or her frame Buddha nature, put another way hidden within. No matter how well AI can use “deep learning” to understand this hidden substance, it won’t be able to transcend consciousness’s frame. Of course, robots might, after having thoroughly emulated humans, be able to realize the optimal “specs” that make up the human frame, but humanity’s true power comes from its ability to transcend the human frame, to embody a non-human existence in short, to become Buddha. If monks’ work is placed in relation to developing this non-human, superhuman potential (Buddha Nature), then it’s unlikely that they will lose out to robots: perhaps the last job left for humans, and the most creative one, will be precisely theirs.

So, this is a call to all monks!

            Inside of artificial intelligence research circles, the word “Godlike Machine” is used to refer to the ultimate manifestation of AI. And, in regard to the question of whether humans should create this machine even if it leads to the extinction of humanity, there’s a vigorous debate going on between those who support creation, the Universe faction, and those who oppose it, the Earth faction.  The Universe faction says that humans can’t turn back the steady progression of the universe, and, even if humans go extinct in the process, they should create a superhuman AI. In return, the Earth faction asserts that humans are most important, and any AI that would threaten humanity’s existence isn’t needed. An era is close at hand when, far from simply the existential value of temples, the existential value of the human race will be scrutinized.

It’s surely not an exaggeration to say that, in comparing the last thirty years and the thirty that will come, the pace at which the environment around temples changes will increase a hundred times.  In the short term, depopulation a low birth rate and an aging population may greatly influence the societal discourse in Japan, but in the longer run, it will fundamentally be questions about what humans are, and what the existential value of the human race is, that occupy us. Religion, and, in particular, Buddhism’s ability to address both these short and long-term issues is being tested.

As a monk, are you doing creative work that couldn’t be automated? With not just the end of temples, but the end of the human race as a possibility coming into view, do you have a vision for the future?

We’re waiting at the Japanese Fellowship of Buddhists.

(Japanese Fellowship of Buddhists Director: Shokei Matsumoto)