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Robot Priests: And You Thought “Robotic Religion” Was Just a Pointed Criticism…?

You know, rote prayers, mindless gestures… Is that the way of the future for some?

Reuters announced last year that in Japan, a robot can be hired to perform Buddhist funeral rites:

A Japanese company has introduced a new role for SoftBank’s humanoid robot “Pepper” – a Buddhist priest for hire at funerals. … With Japan’s population ageing and shrinking, many Buddhist priests receive less financial support from their communities, prompting some to find part-time work outside their temple duties, said Michio Inamura, Nissei’s executive adviser.

The funeral robot could step in when a priest was not available, he said. It also cost less at 50,000 yen (about $450) per funeral compared to more than 240,000 yen ($2,200) for a human priest. More.

As of August 2017, the robot priest had not yet been hired. Perhaps most Japanese people can think of other ways of keeping funeral expenses under control.

Not to be outdone in things high-tech, China, as Tyler O’Neil tells us at PJ Media, this year

unveiled a robot priest capable of performing funerals and praying for the dead, using artificial intelligence (AI) to meet the needs of a burgeoning funeral market.

The AI robot priest made an appearance at the 8th China International Funeral Expo (CIFE) in Wuhan city, central China’s Hubei province, on June 18.

AI Robot priest for funerals, 2018/Imaginechina via AP Images

O’Neil asks,

On the flip side, what kind of God accepts prayers from a robot? Is the AI priest cheating the deceased, cheating their family, or cheating God? More.

How well robot priests adapt to a religious culture may depend in part on what the culture believes about the purpose of prayer. If what matters is chiefly the number of prayers iterated, the robot priest is an adaptation of the prayer wheel:

The prayer wheel consists of a hollow metal cylinder, often beautifully embossed, mounted on a rod handle and containing a tightly wound scroll printed with a mantra. Each turning of the wheel by hand is equivalent in efficacy to the prayer’s oral recitation multiplied by the number of times the mantra is printed on the scroll. – Britannica

Just how well that strategy would work in a culture where prayer is seen explicitly as a conversation with an intelligent divine entity and worshippers are even warned against mere repetitive prayer, is unclear.

Which brings us to the Bless U 2 robot in Germany.

To mark the 500th year since the Reformation, one Protestant church unveiled BlessU-2, a robot priest that delivers blessings in five languages:

“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, which is behind the initiative, told the Guardian.

Here’s Bless U2’s patter transcribed:

Guten Tag. Hello. Bonjour.

… Please choose a language. (The demonstrator chooses English.)

Hi and welcome. It’s nice to meet you.

Would you lie to be blessed by a female or a male voice. (flat tone)

The demonstrator presses the screen for a male voice.

Hi. Which blessing do you need? (lower tone)

The demonstrator suggests one. The arm extensions rise.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” [Rom 15:13, not that that is explained.]

The arm extensions fall.

Go forth in the peace of God. Would you like to print out your blessing?

The demonstrator touches the screen and a blessing is printed out.

Thank you for your visit and goodbye.

“The idea is to provoke debate,” said Krebs. “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.” More.

Indeed. One wonders how many serious Christians would think that a thing that neither lives or dies, thinks nor feels, judges nor forgives should be iterating such words as if it were a pastor? That was the point of the exercise, to be sure.

If a person comes to think of himself as simply a meat robot, a sophisticated version of BlessU-2 might appeal to him. The mere fact that the robot’s words don’t mean anything to the robot wouldn’t seem to be as much of a problem if the very concept of “meaning” is thought to be founded on a mistake, as it is in the current materialist approach to consciousness.

See also: Can we cheat death by uploading ourselves as virtual AI entities?

Robot Priests: And You Thought “Robotic Religion” Was Just a Pointed Criticism…?