China’s ancient worldview shines light on the future of AI

Jan Krikke
13 min readFeb 10, 2018


Artificial intelligence (AI) allows us to do valuable thought experiments. Some experts predict AI could eventually replace humans and control human destiny. If AI were to develop a mind of its own, what would be its desires, ambitions, its raison d’être? Will post-human AI continue to develop science and explore the mysteries of the universe? Would it appreciate art? What is the cultural dimension of AI? History shows that cultural values become embedded in our technologies. Would Chinese AI be different from American AI? If so, how?

These are difficult questions to answer, but a good place to start is with China’s natural philosophy and worldview. China has long been familiar with the binary logic that is at the heart of AI. Moreover, Chinese philosophers made a convincing case that there are limits to what we can know. The best we can do is calculate probabilities.

In the 11th century, the Chinese natural philosopher Zhou Dun-yi summarized the Chinese view of the universe in one simple graph. His “Explanation of the Diagram of the Supreme Polarity” (Taijitu shuo) depicts the cosmos as an interaction of binary forces that governs the universe, including organic processes on earth.

Like other Chinese natural philosophers, Zhou did not bother to develop a mathematical framework for his model. The Western concept of scientific proof was alien to the Chinese. They accepted uncertainty as a given. The only certainty was the structure of the universe — the conviction that nature is based on complementary, mutually dependent polarities (which they called yin and yang). It was manifest and observable in everything — Heaven and Earth, positive and negative, male and female, growth and decay, day and night, active and passive, space and time, and so on.

The notion that nature is an interaction of polar opposites enabled the Chinese to evolve from animism while retaining a bond with nature. Creation itself was explained as the parting of polarities: “When the yin and the yang, initially united, separated forever, the mountains poured forth water.” The Chinese referred to the force behind the separation of polarities as Tao, the invisible hand that moves the universe.

The early Chinese reasoned that if nature is based on mutually complementary opposites, they would do well apply the same principle to their lives. It would allow them to “insert themselves” into the binary universe with the minimum amount of friction. Nature’s polar opposites form the basis of the classic Book of Changes (I Ching or Yi-jing), the “manual” to the yin-yang universe.

Art and science

The Chinese made it an art — if not a science — to identify all conceivable opposites in nature: growth and decay, strong and weak, far and near, horizontal and vertical, and, importantly, spirit and matter. Everything under Heaven, whether rocks, trees or humans, partake in the same Tao. Reconciling opposites became the guiding principle in the development of every aspect of Chinese civilization. Confucianism is one of many “products” of Tao, as is Chinese architecture, agriculture, martial arts, medicine, music and dietary habits.

The Chinese have a specific name for the magnetic tension between yin and yang — a mysterious something called qi. Wherever there are opposites, there is qi. It pervades everything from the unmeasurable universe to the smallest things (and “non-things”) on earth. The word has a wide range of meanings and has been translated in many different ways: cosmic breath, aether, spirit, vital force, life energy, among others. Joseph Needham, author of the monumental study Science and Civilisation in China, borrowed a term from quantum physics and translated qi as matter-energy. Qi is symbolized by the most famous of all Chinese symbols: the Dragon.

Qi became something sacred in a secular sense and Chinese artists made it their task to make qi visible for the people at large. A textbook example is the Mynah by the 13th-century master Muqi Fachang. Muqi applied various yin-yang opposites to capture qi — white is yin, black is yang; concave is yin, convex is yang; low is yin, high is yang. The binary opposites set up tension throughout the image. Cover the concave branch above (yang) with your hand to reveal only the concave trunk below (yin) and the composition of the image collapses instantly; the qi created by the visual tension between yin and yang disappears.

Despite being a monochrome image, the bird seems to be alive because the artist captured the “inner qi” of the bird, based on long observations. In the words of the Chinese masters: “Heart follows, brush executes; selects form without doubt.” As art historian George Rowley explained in his book Principles of Chinese Painting: “If the artist caught qi, everything else followed. But if he missed qi, no amount of likeness, embellishment, skill, or even genius could save the work from lifelessness.”

Cosmic web of tension

Qi can be seen as a pre-scientific notion of electromagnetism. The modern Chinese word for electricity is — dian qi, or great qi. The ancient Chinese identified three manifestations of qi. Heavenly qi, the realm of the dragon, is governed by the stars and rules qi on earth, including the weather, the climate, and natural disasters. Wind, rain and hurricanes are signs that heavenly qi is rebalancing itself. Human qi is influenced by the qi from Heaven and Earth, the reason why many people are physically and mentally affected by the phases of the moon. In Chinese perceptions, Heaven and Earth make up one gigantic web of tension.

In the 20th century, European physicists suggested that the Chinese conceptually had been on the right track. The harnessing of electricity in the 19th century opened the way for sub-atomic science, and quantum physicist Niels Bohr was one of several scientists who recognized that the Chinese view of nature is very similar to behavior observed in the subatomic world.

Electrons display binary qualities. They flash on and off and seemed to have the qualities of a particle (with momentum) and a wave (with a frequency). The correlation with the binary principle of yin and yang inspired Bohr to use the yin-yang symbol in his family’s coat of arms. In the 1970s, physicist and author Fritjof Capra, in his book The Tao of Physics, explained that quantum physics describes the behavior of subatomic particles the way the Chinese speak of yin and yang:

The yang having reached its climax
retreats in favor of the yin;
the yin having reached its climax
retreats in favor of the yang.

The quantum physicists were not the first Europeans to recognize the seemingly modern qualities of Chinese culture. This distinction goes to the German natural philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz. In the late 17th century, Leibniz invented the binary code used now in modern, “digital” computers. Leibniz, one of the last European natural philosophers familiar with all scientific developments of the age before specialization overtook Western science, maintained an active correspondence with Father Joachim Bouvet, a Jesuit missionary stationed in Beijing.

Leibniz sent father Bouvet his paper announcing the binary code. Father Bouvet replied by sending Leibniz the diagram of 64 hexagrams. He explained that the Chinese had used the binary code for centuries, that it was the foundation of the Book of Changes. Leibniz was elated. He saw the correlation between the binary code and the Chinese hexagrams as confirmation of the universality of his invention. He subsequently wrote a second paper crediting the Chinese as the true inventors of the binary code. They use a different notation, broken and unbroken lines instead of 0 and 1, but the logic was the same.

True or false

Leibniz thus became the father of mathematical logic and ultimately of the digital revolution. In the 19th century, English mathematician George Boole developed an algebra based on the logic of the binary code. Boolean algebra is an algebra of classes; it enabled mathematician to perform mathematical operations on “classes” of things, objects or ideas with only two outcomes: true or false. If the symbol x represents the class of all “white objects” and the symbol y the class of all “round objects,” the symbol xy represents the class of objects that are simultaneously white and round.

Boole invented several mathematical functions based on binary logic (TRUE/FALSE/IF/THEN/OR/NOT). Boolean logic enabled us to perform algebraic operations on symbols other than numbers, an invention that was crucial in the development of modern digital computing in the 20th century and to artificial intelligence.

Note that Boolean classes are similar to the Chinese hexagrams. The ancient Chinese created eight trigrams to represent “classes” of yin and yang. Each trigram stands for nature archetypes that share certain qualities or tendencies the Chinese observed in nature. The Chinese combined the trigrams in all possible combinations to create 64 hexagrams, a further “grading” of the eight yin and yang classes.

The attributes given to each trigram carried over to the hexagrams. The trigram for wind (also associated with wood) placed on top of the trigram for mountain produced the hexagram “Gradual Advance.” When we think of the effect of wind on a mountain (or the growth of wood), the attribute makes sense. The combination of the trigrams for lake and mountain produced the hexagram “Mutual Influence.”

The Book of Changes is a manual to the 64 hexagrams. It offers guidance on the deeper meaning of the archetypes and reflects ancient Chinese ideas about nature and its natural tendency. We can consult the book in order to clarify doubt in our mind before making a major decision like getting married, buying a house, or moving to a new location. A randomly selected hexagram presents us with a variety of binary opposites — favorable/unfavorable, gain/loss, advancing/retreating and so on.

The Book of Changes elaborates on the meaning of the hexagrams, the trigrams and the six separate lines of the hexagrams. The explanations do not give us specific advice, but help us to find the answer in our subconsciousness. Transpersonal psychologist Marysol Sterling Gonzalez aptly referred to the Book of Changes as a psychological computer.
Binary logic

In the early 1940s, the US government appointed mathematician Norbert Wiener to head up a team of scientists tasked with the development of a computer with unrivaled speed and accuracy. The US war effort required high-speed calculations to crack enemy codes, better ballistic measurements and other processes requiring large and complex calculations. Wiener’s work would lead to a technology he called cybernetics.

Up to the 1940s, most computers were analog machines. In his book, Cybernetics, Wiener explained why his team opted for binary computing. Neurophysiological research had shown that the brain, in processing information, transmits signals in minute electrical currents in an on-and-off sequence. Wiener’s team reasoned that if the brain is based on this on-and-off principle, it would make sense to use the same principle for electronic computing machines. Binary machines, using “discrete” mathematics, were considered to be more stable than analog systems, which rely on variation in the (analog) strength of electrical currents to process numbers. By the 1950s, most computer design had shifted to binary architecture.

Joseph Needham was the first Western scholar to recognize the correlation between the binary logic of the Book of Changes and the development of binary/Boolean computing. In Science and Civilisation of China, Needham summarized Leibniz’s encounter with China:

“It [Leibniz’s binary code] has been found to be, as Wiener points out in his important book on cybernetics (the study of self-regulating systems whether animal or mechanical), the most suitable system for the great computing machines of the present day. It has been found convenient to build them on a binary basis, using only ‘on’ or ‘off’ positions, whether of switches in electrical circuits or of thermonic valves, and the type of algorithm followed is therefore the Boolean algebra of classes, which gives only the choice of ‘yes’ or ‘no’, of being either inside a class or outside. It is therefore no coincidence that Leibniz, besides developing the binary arithmetic, was also the founder of modern mathematical logic and a pioneer in the construction of calculating machines. As we may see later, Chinese influence was responsible, at least in part, for his conception of an algebraic or mathematical logic, just as the system of order in the Book of Changes foreshadowed the binary arithmetic.”

Quantum physics also benefited from Leibniz’s binary code and Boolean algebra. The binary code and Boolean classes are crucial to discrete mathematics, a tool used in quantum physics to deal with the so-called uncertainty principle first proposed by quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg. The uncertainty principle states that we cannot know both the position and the momentum of a particle because a particle is said to exist in “cloud of probability.” What we can do is capture the particle in a grid and, by using different variables, calculate the probabilities that the particle is in one of the fields in the grid.

Here we see another correlation with the ancient Chinese approach to uncertainty. The Book of Changes can be seen as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle avant la lettre. It correctly assumes that human life itself plays out in a cloud of probabilities. Newtonian physics has made this a difficult hurdle in the West. For more than 300 years, it solidified the world view that the universe is a predictable machine operating on predictable laws.


Cybernetics was the first comprehensive computing theory. One of its most important products was the automatic pilot used in modern aircraft. The autopilot assures that an aircraft goes from A to B within the parameters set by the navigator. A feedback system using Boolean logic takes account of all probabilities the aircraft may encounter midflight. IF the aircraft encounters strong crosswinds, THEN the ailerons in the wings are activated to force a course correction. Cybernetics relies on the principle of feedback, a concept invented by James Clerk Maxwell, who developed the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, bringing together electricity, magnetism, and light as different manifestations of the same phenomenon. It is the scientific differentiation of qi.

Cybernetics has become crucial to countless technologies, from environmental control systems to navigation systems in self-driving cars, and it was the conceptual framework for artificial intelligence. First-generation AI is a self-learning version of cybernetics. It is typically designed for specific domains, like playing chess or controlling autonomous vehicles.

Some AI scientists believe next-generation AI, or artificial general intelligence (AGI), will be able to handle virtually any human task. AGI has no uniform definition, but experts say it should have the ability to reason, use strategy, solve puzzles, make judgments under uncertainty, represent knowledge, plan, learn, communicate in natural language and integrate all these skills for achieving common goals.

AGI’s proposed skill set covers many human abilities, but what role will cultural differences play in the development of AGI? Social and emotional intelligence, not always “logical” mathematically, differ from culture to culture. Chinese AGI will be different from American or European AGI. Important factors in Chinese culture are saving face, non-verbal communication, being non-confrontational and using silences as a means of communication. These are ingrained in Chinese consciousness. Despite political and economic modernization, China is not “westernized.” It is at heart a Confucian, collectivist society based on behavior and ethics that stress mutual obligations, loyalty, filial piety, respect for age and seniority. All this is blended with a “Taoist” understanding that has roots in its ancient animist age based on the belief that everything in the universe is interconnected and always strives for a yin-yang equilibrium.

Humble AI

If history is any indication, the Chinese approach to AI will be pragmatic. AI is a tool, an important one but still a tool. As “the factory of the world,” China makes many of the components that will fuel the AI revolution, including the “Internet of Things.” Not prone to existential deliberations, Chinese companies will focus on practical applications, off-the-shelf AI systems for specific domains ranging from self-driving cars to medical applications. Using their enormous economies of scale, these systems will be tested in China but may set global standards in the process. The power that comes from being the world’s largest hardware producer and having massive volumes of data on more than a billion people who share the same language and worldview can only be imagined.

The Chinese are not given to speculations about AGI being the last human technology before robots with superior intelligence take over and decide our faith. A Chinese entrepreneur, asked if robots could control humans in the future, pointed out that intelligence comes from the brain, but wisdom and love come from the heart. To the Chinese (and the Japanese, who assimilated Chinese culture but also retained their animist roots), developing robots of any kind is simply a matter of reconciling spirit and matter.

Human qualities like wisdom and love can be simulated but not duplicatied in non-biological systems. The human brain is not merely a calculating machine operating on binary/Boolean logic. It is embedded in a biological system with both analog and binary processes, with organs, tissues, a bloodstream, metabolism and sensorimotor functions. The human biological system is part of energy fields in nature and the cosmos. If we consider the world of quantum physics — and the Chinese claim that heavenly and earthly qi influence human qi — it is clear that the human brain is not a machine with a reset button. It is part of a process rather than a thing. To replicate this entire “system” would be a mind-boggling feat. A robot with AGI of this level would make no attempt to control humans. It would greet its human master in the morning with a bow, in a sign of humility and respect to its creator.



Jan Krikke

Author of Creating a Planetary Culture: European Science, Chinese art, and Indian Transcendence