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Kyoto Univ. helps develop advice-dispensing AI 'Buddhabot' offering Buddhist perspective

Seiji Kumagai, an associate professor at Kyoto University's Kokoro Research Center, center, explains the "Buddhabot" AI, in Kyoto's Sakyo Ward on March 26, 2021. (Mainichi/Satoshi Fukutomi)

KYOTO -- Researchers in Japan have developed a "Buddhabot" artificial intelligence which gives advice from a Buddhist perspective on modern worries and social issues.

    The AI, developed by researchers including at Kyoto University's Kokoro Research Center, answers in 108 ways -- the same number of earthly desires Buddhism says people have -- to consultations carried out via computer.

    "With the Buddhabot, anyone can ask any questions anytime, anywhere," said Seiji Kumagai, an associate professor in Buddhist studies at the research center. He added, "I hope it will be an opportunity for people to strengthen their trust in Buddhism."

    The research group applied an algorithm called "BERT" provided by Google in the U.S. They selected passages from the oldest Buddhist sutra "Sutta Nipata," that are easy to understand even now, and created a list of questions and answers to have the AI learn it. The Buddhabot can currently answer questions using 108 different passages. To develop the AI, the team also received cooperation from a Buddhist scholar.

    For example, to the question, "How can I enjoy myself every day while not being able go out for drinks because of the coronavirus?" the Buddhabot answers: "To have a calm, clean life, it is important to cleanse yourself first, pay consideration to each other, and spend time with similarly clean people."

    At present, issues including discrepancies between questions and answers remain, so the team intends to improve the AI's accuracy by making it learn more data. To make sure that developers do not alter the sutras' wording, and that the Buddhabot does not use words Buddha never did, it will for the time being be used only academically, instead of publicly.

    As Japanese Buddhism often appears in funeral and sightseeing scenes, there has been a sense of crisis about the current situation, which could cause the religion to become more facile; that feeling spurred the AI's development.

    Koshin Higashifushimi, chief steward at Shoren-in Monzeki temple in Kyoto's Higashiyama Ward, said, "I hope it will become a step for people who until now haven't had opportunities to get in touch with Buddhism to learn about it."

    (Japanese original by Satoshi Fukutomi, Kyoto Bureau)

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