• Dr. Timothy Smith

Sacred Space: Robots in Religion


Photo Source: Pixabay

(This post was originally published on August 26th, 2017)

Socially interactive robots continue to enter society at an ever-increasing pace. One of the leaders in socially interactive robots, SoftBank, offers an artificial intelligence-enabled robot named Pepper. Pepper is a humanoid, or human-shaped, robot that stands 4-feet-tall with a smooth plastic head with large expressive eyes that change color with different emotional states. Pepper rolls across level surfaces at a top speed of 2 miles per hour, which is slightly slower than normal human walking speed. According to SoftBank.com, Pepper is the first commercially available robot that can react to people’s emotions. Pepper learns the emotional state of people through their vocal tone, speech, and facial expressions. Additionally, through advanced robotics, Pepper not only displays appropriate emotional responses through speech and changing eye color but through very human-like body language. Pepper’s likability and sociability make it a natural choice for commercial interaction situations as well as a personal companion.

First commercially available in Japan in 2015, Pepper already occupies a number of roles in Japan’s society. Pepper works at hundreds of SoftBank mobile phone outlets, greeting customers and answering questions. Nestle, the multinational food and beverage corporation, according to an article in The Guardian, employs Pepper in a thousand stores across Japan to help sell their coffee makers and coffee. SoftBank showcases Pepper on their website in a portrait of a multi-generational Japanese family as their newly adopted member. More recently, as reported by the Japan Times, Pepper now works as a robotic Buddhist monk assisting in Buddhist funeral ceremonies. Dressed in traditional robes, Pepper interacts with mourners and chants sutras (Buddhist holy texts) from four Japanese Buddhist sects. The company Nissei Eco of Japan programed Pepper to provide an inexpensive alternative to the traditional Buddhist funeral service with a monk in attendance who will chant sutras as part of the ceremony. Nissei Eco claims that Pepper costs significantly less at 50,000 Yen (about $457.00) than a monk at ten or more times the price. With funerals costing millions of yen (thousands of dollars). Nissei Eco hopes to fill a need of a dignified funeral at an affordable price. In Buddhism, death occupies a very important part of the cycle of reincarnation. Although the funeral traditions vary from sect to sect, according to “A Guide to a Proper Buddhist Funeral,” at the funeral a monk chants sutras to release the good energies of the deceased from the body. The sutras help transit the person to their new life with the hopes of a good reincarnation. The reciting of the sutras helps the deceased into their next life. However, due to location or financial circumstances, monks may not be present for a Buddhist funeral, and it is acceptable for family members or other mourners to also recite sutras, Since modesty is an overriding principle in a Buddhist funeral, pre-recorded sutras are also seen as acceptable in a Buddhist funeral ceremony. Hence, it is not outside the realm of possibility for a robot to chant sutras for a Buddhist funeral.

Another interesting example of robotics, artificial intelligence, and Buddhism has been developed in China. Recently, in a monastery outside of Beijing, The Guardian reported Xian’er, a 2 foot tall robotic monk developed by the Longquan Temple in collaboration with a number of Chinese tech companies to answer questions relating to Buddhism from the visiting public. The Longquan Temple has an animation group and an information technology team with the goal of reaching the growing number of grassroots Buddhists that may have misconceptions about Buddhism. The expressed goal is to reach more people interested in Buddhism by embracing the digital age.

Emotionally intelligent robots continue to fill more complex roles in society from concierge tor religious figures. Moreover, emotionally and artificially intelligent robots are finding their way into Buddhism in Japan and China. To another degree, we are seeing the improvement of technology and the simultaneous inclusion of emotionally intelligent robots into everyday life even to the most personal realm of religion. Perhaps, one day just as Netflix or Amazon get better and better at guiding our preferences and purchases, we may rely on AI in our more personal, spiritual guidance.

Dr. Timothy Smith

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback and in kindle format here.

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