A robot is now delivering sermons in Japan: the beginning of AI and religion?

By Alma Fabiani

Published Sep 18, 2019 at 09:48 AM

Reading time: 2 minutes

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.

Keep On Reading

By Charlie Sawyer

How to become a sugar baby: Everything you need to know about pursuing a safe sugar lifestyle

By Charlie Sawyer

Nikki Haley snaps at Fox News reporters who asked her why she hasn’t dropped out of the election

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

Why was Melania Trump not at the Manhattan courthouse with her husband?

By Charlie Sawyer

Finance bro podcasts are cringe and problematic, so why are they taking over TikTok?

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

Julia Fox’s recent fashion statement sparks intense criticism from FGM survivors

By Charlie Sawyer

Millie Bobby Brown labelled as rude and disrespectful after recent interview confession

By Abby Amoakuh

Influencers are pranking their loved ones by claiming ExxonMobil has invited them on an oil rig brand trip

By Charlie Sawyer

Would you rather be stuck in a forest with a man or a bear? Unpacking our viral TikTok video

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

Percy Hynes White speaks out after Netflix confirmed that he won’t return for Wednesday season 2

By Abby Amoakuh

Bride walks out on her own wedding after the groom smashed a cake in her face, and she’s not the first one!

By Abby Amoakuh

Did Taylor Swift disrespect Céline Dion at the 2024 Grammys? We investigated the incident

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

Who was the goblin who crashed the 2024 Emmy Awards red carpet?

By Abby Amoakuh

The real story behind Netflix’s One Day and why it will make you cry your eyes out

By Alma Fabiani

Brothers jailed for recording themselves torturing poor animals in sadistic attacks

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

UK to criminalise deepfake pornography, regardless of creator’s intentions

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

Swipe, date, invest: Inside the rise of the $2,000 three-date rule in 2023

By Charlie Sawyer

What is a glizzy? Breaking down the mysterious term taking over TikTok

By Abby Amoakuh

Challengers representatives step in after movie poster with racial slur goes viral

By Abby Amoakuh

McDonald’s ditches the happy in Happy Meals in an attempt to raise awareness for mental health

By Abby Amoakuh

What One Direction fans should expect from The Idea of You, a movie based on a Harry Styles fanfic