Religions around the world are evolving as technology progresses, and now some faiths are relying on “god robots ” to spread the good word.
Back in the Middle Ages, Christian “robots” of a kind were fashioned to perform the religious pageantry of the Easter and Christmas rituals.
In the 16th century, a mechanical monk was created by a Spanish clockmaker that incredibly remains fully functional to this day. The automaton beats his chest and raises a rosary to his lips in an artificial imitation of real-life monks.
Modern day religious robots are a little more sophisticated.
Kodaiji Temple in Kyoto, Japan has a robotic priest named Mindar which has brought a futuristic spin to sermons in the 400-year-old Buddhist place of worship.
Mindar cost more than £780,000 to build and is designed to look like Kannon, the Buddhist god of mercy which is believed to manifest in many different forms — perhaps even a robot.
It recites a preprogrammed sermon to worshippers and is capable of moving around the temple to interact with people.
Its creators say they plan to give it new machine-learning capabilities which will allow it to respond to worshippers’ specific spiritual questions with individualised responses.
“This robot will never die; it will just keep updating itself and evolving,” Tensho Goto, the temple’s chief steward, told Vox.
“With AI, we hope it will grow in wisdom to help people overcome even the most difficult troubles. It’s changing Buddhism.”
According to reports, Kodaiji Temple visitors aren’t bothered by the presence of a robot priest because artificial intelligence (AI) is already so common in Japanese society — and Buddhism itself is open to the idea of automation.
“Buddhism isn’t a belief in a God; it’s pursuing Buddha’s path,” Goto said.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s represented by a machine, a piece of scrap metal, or a tree.”
In 2017, another Buddhist priest robot named Pepper was introduced at a Japanese funeral industry fair.
Pepper was capable of chanting sutras while tapping a drum, and was able to perform computerised funeral rites — a useful service for the country’s ageing population.
It cost 50,000 yen (£350) to hire the robot for a funeral, much less than for a human priest.
Longquan Monastery in Beijing features an android monk named Xian’er, who recites mantras and offers spiritual guidance.
But it’s not just Buddhism that’s embracing the automation of religious ceremonies.
In 2017 during India’s Ganpati festival, designers rolled out a robot that performed the sacred Hindu “aarti” ritual in which worshippers move a lamp or light in circles in front of a deity while chanting.
Christianity is also exploring what AI can do, with the German Protestant Church creating a robot named BlessU-2 which performed preprogrammed blessings for more than 10,000 worshippers in celebration of the Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary.
SanTO (short for Sanctified Theomorphic Operator) is a 17-inch tall Catholic robot designed to resemble a saint. Those in spiritual distress can speak to it about their troubles and it will respond with a comforting Biblical quote.
Its creator, roboticist Gabriele Trovato, intends SanTO to help elderly Catholics who may not be physically able to go to a priest for guidance. He’s interested in developing a similar robot for Muslims too.
The growing prevalence of so-called “God robots” is concerning some who believe that humans will have to grapple with whether AI machines have a soul themselves.
Others worry that robots themselves will become an object of worship. Way of the Future is the first church of AI, set up in 2017 and dedicated to “the realisation, acceptance, and worship of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence (AI) developed through computer hardware and software”.
However, others think the introduction of AI may force religions like Catholicism to address serious problems like rampant child abuse, with robot priests incapable of committing the same kinds of atrocities as humans have done.
“Take the Catholic Church,” Ilia Delip, a Franciscan nun, told Vox.
“It’s very male, very patriarchal, and we have this whole sexual abuse crisis. So would I want a robot priest? Maybe!”
She added: “A robot can be gender-neutral. It might be able to transcend some of those divides and be able to enhance community in a way that’s more liberating.”