Around the world, technology has been facilitating religion in a time where churches in some regions are closed due to quarantine orders, resulting in believers turning to online prayer meetings and mobile apps to strengthen their faith. But in a number of countries around the world, robot priests are being used to spread the religious word.
Robot priest BlessU-2 was built in 2017, the 500-year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, for the town of Wittenberg, Germany, as per a report from the Guardian. Stephan Krebs, a local priest behind the aforementioned robot, said that although BlessU-2 can recite bible verses and pre-composed prayers, it could "never substitute for pastor care". Dr. Beth Singler, a researcher at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, also believes that "robots are not the next stage of priesthood".
Despite believing this, Krebs created the robot to spark debate about the future of the church and the religious capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI).
"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," said Krebs.
The robot can offer blessings in English, French, Spanish, German or Polish. Worshippers can choose if they want to hear it in a male or female voice. The robot raises its arms, flashes lights, recites a biblical verse and dictates: "God bless and protect you". If you want to get a printout of what it said, you can do that as well.
Meanwhile in Kyoto, Japan, a robot called "Mindar" that looks like Kannon, the goddess of mercy, is situated in Kodai-ji Temple, a 400-year old Buddhist temple. The androgynous robot is made out of aluminium, measures over six feet in height and is meant to teach the essence of Buddhism. As of now, it does not come with machine-learning algorithms but its designers said that someday, AI will give the robot a sense of autonomy.
Some Japanese Buddhists reacted positively to the robot, while others felt uncomfortable by it and thought that it looked different from the Buddhist statues they have seen before.
When asked in a BBC documentary if automating spirituality is sacrilegious, Buddhist monk Tensho Goto said: "It is not blasphemy. Although it's a gradual process, AI is going to create a change in other religions too."
In Warsaw, Poland, Gabriele Trovato said that he created the first-ever Catholic robot named "SanTO", which stands 17 inches tall. SanTO is short for Sanctified Theomorphic Operator.
Trovato also mentioned the benefit of the robot's existence during the lockdown.
"It was clear to me last year during the lockdown when many people started complaining (that) they couldn't go to church, so in this sense, a machine like SanTO can give a hand," stated Trovato, a Robotics researcher at Waseda University.
SanTO has 2,000 years of knowledge about the Catholic religion programmed into it and can speak to people in English. It is capable of answering questions related to the Catholic faith with Bible verses.
One Catholic believer likened SanTO to a "Catholic Alexa". However, when she was asked if SanTO gave her a satisfying answer, she said that the problem with artificial intelligence is that its answers are vague. This is because the spiritual questions cannot be easily addressed and so the robot helps you find those answers on your own rather than feed them to you directly.
Unlike the two other aforementioned robots, SanTO is meant to serve as a prayer companion, not as a replacement for a priest.
Written by Sophia Lopez