A Japanese robotics company introduced a robot programmed for priestly duties Aug. 23, but the android is only the latest in a line of robotic clergy.
The dawn of robotic spirituality began in 2016 as little more than a novelty, but since then a total of three robots have begun offering priestly services, sparking debate among certain groups about the boundaries of technology and the spiritual realm. Say hello to your new robot overlords:
Xian’er the robotic monk whirred its cold lifeless exoskeleton onto the priestly scene in April of 2016 in a Buddhist monastery in Beijing, according to The Guardian.
Master Xianfian, a monk at Lonquan Temple, created the 2 foot tall, yellow-robed, bald-headed robot to spread Buddhist teachings and information about monastic life to those more enamored with technology than with spiritual pursuits.
“Science and Buddhism are not opposing nor contradicting, and can be combined and mutually compatible,” Xianfian told Reuters.
The merging of robotics and the priesthood presented no controversy for Buddhism, according to Xianfan, as Xian’er is simply an instrument for ministering to people who have inner needs in an externally-focused lifestyle.
“Buddhism is something that attaches much importance to inner heart, and pays attention to the individual’s spiritual world. It is a kind of elevated culture. Speaking from this perspective, I think it can satisfy the needs of many people,” Xianfian said.
The robot sports a touchscreen on its chest and can answer 20 questions about Buddhism and life at its monastery. The monk, such as it is, spends most of the time locked in a closet.
A church in Germany graced Earth with the presence of yet another conscienceless metal and plastic priest, BlessU-2, in May to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.(Related: Germany Celebrates Protestant Reformation With A Robot Pastor [VIDEO])
Those seeking a blessing from this shell of servos and circuits can select a male or female voice in one of five languages from the touchscreen on its chest and then select the blessing of their choosing. The robot will then raise its unfeeling hands toward the person, shining with electric lights embedded in its palms, and recite the chosen blessing.
“We wanted people to consider if it is possible to be blessed by a machine, or if a human being is needed,” Stephan Krebs of the Protestant church in Hesse and Nassau told the Guardian.
“The idea is to provoke debate. People from the street are curious, amused and interested. They are really taken with it, and are very positive. But inside the church some people think we want to replace human pastors with machines. Those that are church-oriented are more critical,” added Krebs.
And provoke debate the robot did, as some, like John Daniel Davidson of The Federalist, said it heralded Christianity’s demise in Europe.
“Sometimes people choose oblivion—and sometimes oblivion takes the form of a robot repeating a programmed blessing for anyone who might want one,” Davidson wrote.
Krebs said that the robot would not replace human pastoral care, but hoped that it would help to start a conversation about the application of technology in religion.
Whether or not the robot heralded doom or blessing, the controversy it sparked did not dissuade others from creating another clerical machine.
The Japanese company Softbank showed off Pepper, its humanoid model, and the robots new ability to perform Buddhist funeral rites Aug. 23 in Tokyo at the Life Ending Industry Expo, according to Reuters.
Softbank updated Pepper with priestly programming as a response to the decline in financial support for Buddhist priests from their local communities. Many Buddhist priests have been forced to find side jobs to support themselves due to the decrease in donations. Buddhist priests are therefore not always available and can be expensive to hire for funerals at a price of $2,200. The machine known as Pepper offers funeral rites at a price of $450.
Nissei Eco Co., another Japanese company, created the software that enables Pepper to chant sutras while tapping a drum. Funeral arrangers can choose to garb Pepper in priestly robes and have it live stream the funeral for those unable to attend, according to The Guardian.
The expressionless plastic android has yet to find employment as a funeral priest.
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