Artificial intelligence is gradually emerging in various spheres of human life, from manufacturing and finance to medicine and education. Technologies also came to such a conservative sphere as religion. In temples of different denominations, robots read sermons and pray with believers – although some consider this to be wrong and even blasphemous.
Technologies have been used in different religions for more than a year in the form of collections of prayers in electronic form or applications and gadgets for representatives of different religions and confessions.
Tens of millions of Muslims have the Muslim Pro app, offering believers a wide variety of information, from daily prayer hours in local time, directions to Mecca and Quranic texts in dozens of languages, to Muslim greeting cards and halal restaurant addresses.
The Church of England “taught” the voice assistant Alexa to answer religious questions, and the Vatican released the eRosary, a “smart” rosary bracelet that automatically counts prayers and activates when a person is baptized.
For the Jews, there is the Robo Rabbi AI algorithm, which gives users Torah-based advice designed to make a person better.
These technological innovations are mainly opposed by more conservative clergy and believers. Meanwhile, there are completely radical and controversial incorporations of technology into religious practices.
This is the use of AI and robots in temples and in general when performing prayers and in other religious practices.
In one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Kyoto – Kodai-ji, which has existed since 1605, it has been standing since 2019 robot depicting the goddess of mercy Kannon… It is an anthropomorphic aluminum robot whose hands and face are coated with silicone to resemble human skin. The robot, developed by Tokyo-based A-Lab, can recite sutras with appropriate music and subtitles in different languages, as well as perform various Buddhist rituals such as funeral ceremonies.
“If the image of Buddha speaks to you, it will probably be easier to understand Buddhist teachings. We want people to come here to see a robot – and think about the essence of Buddhism, ”says the rector of the Kodai-ji temple Tensho Hodo.“ Robots are superior to us in this area. I will die, and they will evolve forever. “
Another example of a Buddhist robot is a 60-centimeter figurine. robot monk Xian’er, installed in the Longquan Monastery in Beijing. He is named after a monk – a character in popular comics in China – and, like that, has a rather cartoonish appearance. Xian’er can recite mantras and explain the basics of Buddhism. The development of such a robot was a joint project of the monastery and several Chinese universities and corporations.
Robotics specialist at the University of Tokyo Waseda Gabriele Trovato created, as he himself says, the first Catholic robot called SanTO… It looks like a figure of a saint from a church, but at the same time contains a computer, microphone, sensors and a face recognition system. This robot was presented in 2018 at a religious art exhibition in Rome, as well as a conference on elderly care in Germany.
This reflects the dual purpose of SanTO – it was conceived as a robot with religious functions and at the same time an emphasis on communication with the elderly.
He can read sermons, pray with believers, and even give advice, while quoting from the Holy Scriptures.
“Religion has evolved throughout its history, from word of mouth, through written tradition, to print and media. It would be reasonable to assume that AI and robots will help religion become more widespread, ”said Mr Trovato. He said that SanTO was created back in 2018, and that the pandemic and lockdowns proved the need for such a robot – people cannot come to worship, but they still want to talk to someone about faith and pray together. Already this year, the robot was temporarily installed in one of the churches in Warsaw, and some parishioners called SanTO “Catholic Alexa”.
One more example – robot pastor BlessU-2, which was created in the German city of Wittenberg. In 2017, the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation was celebrated there – it was in Wittenberg in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church, which marked the beginning of a new religious movement. For this anniversary, the Evangelical Church in Hesse and Nassau presented the BlessU-2 robot – it is less anthropomorphic than the goddess Kannon from the temple in Kyoto, and is more of a large terminal (it is really based on an ATM design) with not very realistic arms and head. When you press the buttons on its screen, BlessU-2 blesses believers in five languages, while its hands reach up to the sky and shine, the robot can also read some prayers and Bible verses.
Of course, such innovations often meet with dissatisfaction and criticism in the religious environment. The authors of BlessU-2 themselves honestly admitted that they wanted to spark a discussion about such phenomena. “We wanted people to think if it was right for them to be blessed by a machine, or if they needed a person. The idea was to provoke a discussion. People on the street are curious, surprised and interested. This does not bother them, and they are very positive. But inside the church, some people think we want to replace human pastors with machines. So those connected with the church are more critical, ”said Pastor Stefan Krebs, who is in charge of public relations for the Evangelical Church in Hesse and Nassau.
Mr. Krebs himself notes that, in his opinion, a robot will never replace a real priest, to whom people come for advice and consolation.
According to anthropologist Beth Singler of the British Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, there are three main options for how religions perceive technology: denial, acceptance and adaptation. In her opinion, the initial reaction of religious institutions is often negative, but “technology is quickly becoming ubiquitous and very widespread.”
Dr. Singler notes that representatives of religious institutions can be intimidated by robots in temples, including because, due to mass art, robots are associated more with the Terminator than with something peaceful – but much less embarrassing, for example, chat bots for believers, which are also a manifestation of artificial intelligence.