Deus Ex Machina: meet the robot priests | campus.sg

We all know that robots are taking over the world, but they’re not all exactly where we expect them to. There’s actually been a number of robots taking over the jobs of priests – yup, those men of cloth who are revered members of society – whether they’re simply reciting Buddhist sutras or giving (pre-programmed) blessings.

Best of all, these robots have names and seem to be as revered as their human counterparts. Here are some of them:

Mindar

Works at: Kodaiji, a 400-year-old Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan

At a cost of $1 million, this androgynous robot is designed to look like Kannon (aka Guan Yin) – although it looks more like the Terminator than deity – in order to recite pre-programmed sutras and interact with worshippers.

Its creators want to give it machine-learning capabilities so that Mindar can actually feedback to worshippers about their spiritual and ethical problems. The up side is that the robot won’t die, but teaching a machine to give ethical advice could be… interesting, to say the least.

BlessU-2

Works at: Protestant Church, Germany

Looking more like an ATM with a surprised face, it has a touchscreen chest and two arms with hands that light up. As it recites a biblical verse – “God bless and protect you” – it raises its arms and flashes its lights! (You can also get your blessings printed out).

Built to honour the Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary, the robot was to give preprogrammed blessings in 5 languages (in a male or female voice) to over 10,000 people.

SanTO

SanTO is on the left

Works with: The elderly

SanTO is a 17-inch-tall robot that looks like a Catholic saint figurine right out of a nativity scene. Its job is simply to read the bible – not interpret it – to old people in nursing homes, making it a sort of Buddy Jesus companion to the elderly.

But it does more than that: it’s equipped with software that listens to people, scan their faces for signs of specific emotions, and selects religious texts that may be relevant to their troubles.

Xian’er

Works at: Beijing Longquan Monastery, China

Based on the cartoon character Xian’er, this 2-foot-tall priest-robot with a permanently-surprised expression looks more like a toy or coin bank. It can chat and respond to people’s questions with Buddhist wisdom, read scriptures, and play Buddhist music.

Interestingly, Xian’er is also a chatbot on Wechat and Facebook, because he’s designed to reach out to those more connected to their smartphones than their inner being.

Other robot performers

Robots have also been used to perform menial tasks related to religious rituals. Over in India, the Hindu aarti ritual has been taken over by robotic arms that move a lamp about in a circular pattern in front of their Ganesha deity, accompanied by chants or hymns. The ritual traditionally involved a priest or devotee holding the lamp.

In Japan, SoftBank’s humanoid robot “Pepper” – who can normally be found at places like department stores or shops – has also taken on a role of priest for hire at funerals. It can chant sutras and drum, and it’s 90,000 yen cheaper than a human priest. To date, the robot has not yet been hired for a funeral.

As we progress with AI and robotics, who knows what else we may see in the world of religion.