Robots in Worship

Plastics manufacturer Nissei Eco introduced Pepper in 2017 at Tokyo’s annual Life Ending Industry Expo — Japan’s largest trade show for everything funeral-related. Funerals are costly in Japan, where it costs about 550,000 yen (~$5,030) just to hire the services of a Buddhist monk. Pepper was proposed to administer last rites for a much more economical cost of 50,000 yen (~$460).

Lest we find the idea of robo-monks administering last rites a little, well, cold, according to the manufacterer, Peppers were designed with empathy in mind. An article on Peppers notes:

It’s an incredibly niche and unusual position for the four-foot-tall bot, which was originally designed by SoftBank Robotics as the first humanoid robot to live with humans, and the first capable of perceiving and responding to our emotions. Other Peppers have found homes in hospitals, where they work as receptionists, and in banks, where they greet and assist patrons. As Hyperallergic’s Allison Meier experienced first-hand, this little android is quite capable of displaying empathy.

A few years earlier, a trend on the flipside of this strange situation began: Buddhist last rites for robot dogs. According to reports in 2015:
It’s not clear if all robotic AIBO dogs will go to heaven, but their Japanese owners are convinced they have souls. Owners of the gadgets are staging funerals for the machines after Sony discontinued them and closed the last ‘clinics’ used to fix them.
AIBO pet dogs are the world’s first home entertainment robots with artificial intelligence (AI). They can speak, sense, and express their feelings – which encourages many owners to treat the toys as real family members. The gadgets are even known for developing their own unique personalities.

As if that weren’t enough, this year saw the debut of a robot designed as the incarnation of the Buddha. On February 23, 2019, a robot named Mindar was unveiled to the media at the 400 year old Kodaiji Temple in the city of Kyoto, Japan.

Mindar is based specifically on the female Boddhisattva Kannon, or Guanyin. Mindar broadcasts pre-recorded lectures and gestures, accompanied by projections of Chinese and English subtitles, to explain the teachings of Buddha in plain terms. And it’s not an AI, so for the time being we don’t have to contend with the notion of an autonomous AI goddess. It’s more like an animatronic idol.

What are Christians to make of robots in worship? Pushing the issues of AI and robot souls for the moment, would Christianity ever embrace the idea of robots in worship as Japanese Buddhism has? I will just go ahead and state that I’m not sure I’d want robots as part of Christian iconoography. Can you imagine robot statues of saints, the Madonna or Christ interacting with worshippers? I think the interactive nature of these encounters would make the temptation for overt idolatry just too much. The fact that the only Biblical support for the possibility of artificial intelligence is Revelation 13:15would certainly give us cause for pause in this area.

But what of robots administering baptisms, the Lord’s Supper and last rites? Does the impersonal nature of robots, even ones designed for empathy like the Peppers, make it sacrilegious? I mean, does the church equivalent of the Automat defy the Bible’s teaching on koinonia fellowship? (Don’t we have some of these same questions for digital church?) What if the robots simply assisted, safely immersing baptismal candidates and passing out elements of the Eucharist as server robots while a minister leads the congregation? Is it strange fire, or an efficient use of technology in worship, no different than indoor plumbing, electric lighting and state-of-the-art sound systems?

One thing we know for certain is that the church will need to contend with these questions in the days ahead.

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