In early September, Kodaiji, a 400-year-old Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan, revealed its new priest—a robot named Mindar. Made of aluminium and silicone, Mindar was designed to look like Kannon, the Buddhist deity of mercy. In a country where religion is on the decline, this $1 million robot priest is a futuristic attempt at rekindling people’s faith. Is merging AI with religion a good idea? Could it change religion as we know it?
Religion has always been a sensitive topic, while AI has stirred its fair share of controversy recently. Combining the two together by incorporating robotics in religion sounds like an idea with great potential to some, and like a very dangerous game to others. When it was first revealed in Japan, Mindar was compared to Frankenstein’s monster. And yet, people like Tensho Goto, the temple’s chief steward, were positive about it. “This robot will never die; it will just keep updating itself and evolving.(…) With AI we hope it will grow in wisdom to help people overcome even the most difficult troubles. It’s changing Buddhism,” declared Goto when Mindar was revealed.
At the moment, Mindar the robot priest is not AI-powered; it simply recites the same sermon about the Heart Sutra over and over. But its creators revealed that they’re working on giving it machine-learning capabilities that would enable Mindar to give advice to worshippers’ spiritual and ethical problems. As crazy as it sounds, Mindar is not the first example of robots and animated objects getting involved in religion.
Screen Shot spoke to Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar in Classics and the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology Program at Stanford, who wrote Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology. Mayor told us about the many links between religion and robots from ancient Greece to today, and her opinion on robot priests like Mindar. “Religious automatons were intended to evoke awe and display power in antiquity. We should be aware that similar motives could underlie using AI and robots today,” Mayor says.
When talking about the possibility of AI being implemented in religion, Mayor poses the questions that everyone should be asking themselves: “How can one trust that the machine learning and algorithms would always be beneficial to the users and not to the makers and deployers of robot priests? Could AI distinguish between immoral acts and moral values? Could AI discern motives and intentions and recognise sincere remorse, experience empathy, or truly embody the human qualities of mercy and forgiveness?” The doubts and uncertainty that surround this technology explain why people feel uncomfortable about the prospect. Some religions, however, might be better fitted than others, explains Mayor, “To Buddhists it doesn’t matter whether the force turning the wheel has consciousness or not. Religions that value internal reflection, intentional heartfelt prayer, spiritual guidance based on experience and empathy, and ethical decision making in complex social situations don’t seem particularly compatible with robots and AI.”
Another example of robots being used in religion is Sanctified Theomorphic Operator (SanTo), a figurine shaped like a Catholic saint. Created by roboticist Gabriele Trovato, SanTo answers people’s worry with verses from the Bible, specifically providing comfort and assistance to the elderly. This shows that certain positive potential that AI could bring to religion can’t be completely ignored—robots can perform religious rituals when human priests can’t, and hey can reach more worshippers.
The negative ramifications, however, seem to outnumber the positive ones. Are we willing to alter religion, a topic that has created so much chaos, and still does? By giving these robots AI machine-learning abilities, we would give them the power to tell us how to feel, how to ‘repent’, and what to do. The ethical and spiritual responses from those religious robots will need to be carefully crafted for worshippers to finally trust them. Robot priests are happening, but before preaching it, we need to look at how it will be designed, implemented, and received.
When it comes to humanoid robotics, none have quite lived up to Sophia, Hanson Robotics’ most advanced—and iconic—invention. The female bot, equipped with a skin-like facade, makeup and even teeth, excels when it comes to expressing her business inclination with natural-born leadership skills. To date “She has met face-to-face with key decision makers in banking, insurance, auto manufacturing, property development, media, and entertainment”, as written in her description on the Hanson Robotics’ website. Her creepy mechanic soul, delayed facial expressions and her contrived sense of humour have been engineered to make Sophia a highly sought after employee as opposed to an empathic, human-like robot. In other words, she means business.
While Hanson Robotics is developing humanoids whose goal is to be more efficient in a competitive work environment, other labs are focusing on more empathic, albeit less hyperbolic bots than Sophia. The Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories for instance has been on a more poetic (or creepy, depending on the angle) mission to develop robots that could reproduce what Ishiguro calls the human presence, which is the subtle facial and body movements that make a human, human.
Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, roboticist and director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory in Osaka, Japan, is developing the tools to integrate robotic technologies with the human presence by making robots that could interact with humans without freaking us out (sorry Sophia, that is how you make us feel when you joke about conquering the world and destroying the human race). “We explore not just how people conversing with the robot are affected, but also how the robot’s operator is affected.” Writes Hiroshi Ishiguro. By developing “Geminoids” such as the newly launched Ibuki, an android built to resemble a 10-year-old child, alongside teleoperation systems, the Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories is applying methods from engineering, cognitive science and neuroscience to investigate and hone in on the relationship between humans and robots on a social and emotional level. By creating a child android and imitating the malleability of a young mind and body, Ishiguro expects that a robot that can play, move and consequently share the human experience will—over time—become a conversational robot able to construct a deeper relationship with the human.
Robots developed at the Ishiguro Labs are built to ultimately live symbiotically with humans and that is why the focus of Ishiguro’s research is on body language. Arguably, Ishiguro’s investigation into robotics is more experimental and slow paced and its twist lies on the premise that Ishiguro builds robots in order to understand humans and not the other way around. “My research question is to know what is a human,” he once said in an interview with Spectrum, “I use very human-like robots as test beds for my hypotheses.” With his investigation and often speculative approach, Ishiguro’s aim is not to build robots that are better than Sophia, as his probe goes far beyond the production of androids whose sole raison d’etre is to increase human productivity. His dream is to replicate humans themselves, with all their perfect imperfections, and that includes much more than a fake smile and a couple of cringy jokes.