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Designing ‘Waldo,’ Our Unitarian Universalist Robot


AI is making its way into religion in several interesting ways. As we noted in January, we now see a Ganesha-worshipping robot in India, a Protestant “bless you” robot in Germany,  and a Catholic sermon-giving priest in Poland.

So how about a Unitarian Universalist (UU) robot? We might name it “Waldo” in a nod to Ralph Waldo Emerson, the closest thing we have to a patron saint.

I imagine an AI-enabled Waldo who can enthusiastically discuss any subject, serve as a worthy opponent in any game, crack jokes, and make a fine meal.

Waldo should also be able to write and deliver riveting sermons whenever our human minister wants to take the week off. That and his in-depth knowledge of every religion, every holy book, and every hymn is what makes him a “religious” robot.

A Conversation with Dr. Anna Puzio

The thought a UU robot made for an interesting conversation with Dr. Anna Puzio, a philosopher, theologian, and ethicist working in the ESDiT Research Programme (Ethics of Socially Disruptive Technologies) at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. After completing her doctorate in the anthropology of transhumanism at the Munich School of Philosophy, she has turned her attention to the ethics of robots, including religious robots.

For the foreseeable future, we are surmising that robots will enter UU congregations only as “AI assistants,” “care robots,” or “pastoral bots.” They will not be sentient. How we design Waldo will depend on the religious teachings of Unitarian Universalism: its conceptions of life, and the relationship we want to have with robots.

“These technologies offer great opportunities if they are used well,” says Anna. “Even if we think that our robots have no consciousness and cannot be described as ‘intelligent’ in the same way humans are, we will form relationships with them and we will trust them. Trust is a very important topic on which religion and ethics will have to elaborate.”

“Robots are not in our everyday lives today, but that will change,” Anna said. “Our relationship to them will change and we are more likely to find them in religious communities.”

“For example, they could lead religious ceremonies, give tours of religious buildings, conduct religious talks, and accompany prayers. The exact functions robots perform will depend on concepts that are held sacred and should be studied and designed for whatever situations they will be placed in.”

“We should look at what functions we want the robot to perform, and design it according to those functions” Anna continued. Important elements to consider include the robot’s size, modes of mobility, gestures, and speech. We will also want to incorporate the appropriate use of the UU chalice, flame, and other meaningful symbols.

As the brain/computer interface evolves, boundaries between body and technology are becoming increasingly blurred. We asked Anna if she thinks we will someday have a direct telepathic connection with our religious robot.

“Telepathy is speculative and largely rejected in current science. The question should rather be: Why do we want such functions? For what purpose?” she says. “One question will be what is possible. Another will be whether that’s something we want to do and whether it serves a good purpose.”

Thanks to Dr. Anna Puzio for sharing her thoughts with us on Waldo and other important topics at the intersection of AI and Faith.

Dan Forbush

Is co-publisher of the Smartacus web platform, which uses tools like Zoom, Basecamp and Trint to enable students, writing coaches, and community leaders to create communications that serve the public interest while preparing students for careers in journalism, public relations, film, and digital media.

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