We need to establish ground rules for how data is used and intelligent machines operate. What goals does Buddhism propose?

Recent cyber attacks on the NHS and Parliament show the growing power of computer systems and the data they contain; and the threat is changing as the systems get smarter. Databases already hold more information about us than any human could possibly retain, and the systems themselves are being augmented by Artificial Intelligence and machine learning. The prospect of truly intelligent and autonomous machines focuses the anxieties we’ve felt ever since since Frankenstein created his monster. What if the computers turn on us? How can we curtail their power?

A Royal Society report published this week proposed an overarching principle to govern how data is used: it should promote human flourishing. The authors say that their criterion of ‘flourishing’ is deliberately broad to allow space for democratic debate about, for instance, the balance between an individual’s rights and the needs of society.

But what does ‘flourishing’ mean? The word invokes Aristotle’s idea of eudaemonia, the inner flourishing that is the fulfilment of human wellbeing. For Aristotle and his followers, eudaemonia, is a state of true happiness that grows from our moral virtues, not from pleasure. Buddhism, similarly, sees Nirvana as a state of happiness that has little to do with pleasure. In ordinary life we suffer because we don’t get the things we want and don’t want the things we get. So if you’re unhappy because you want a bigger car that you don’t really need, the Buddhist approach is that maybe you should reduce your desire for large cars, rather than increasing your capacity to buy them.

Reducing our craving is easier said than done, of course, and that’s where the Buddhist path of moral and spiritual practice comes in. Beyond this, the fundamental reason that bigger cars don’t make us happy is that everything we experience, including our bodies, our minds and our vehicles, is impermanent.

So for Buddhists, as for the Greek philosophers, human flourishing depends on a distinctive understanding of what makes us happy. A computer system that supported this would act very differently from one that was dedicated to the more typical goals of a consumer society. It would encourage us to be content and live simply, and to accept impermanence rather than prolonging our lives indefinitely.

The Buddha once said, ‘Better than a million meaningless words is one word that brings peace.’ Update ‘millions of words’ to gigabytes of data and I think you have a Buddhist motto for the digital age.