Around the world, robots are entering the sanctuaries and pulpits of various faiths. As Robert Geraci notes, we have a Ganesha-worshipping robot in India, a Protestant “bless you” robot in Germany, and a Catholic sermon-giving priest in Poland. To varying degrees, they interact with the faithful and express spiritual messages.
Geraci is a professor in the Religious Studies Department of Manhattan College, which remarkably requires every student to take “The Nature and Experience of Religion,” a course that “examines religion as a human phenomenon and ties it into contemporary culture, touching on issues of death, marriage, sexuality, peace and social justice, science and society, and urban problems.”
In the spring semester, Geraci will teach “Religion and Science” plus a new course, “FutureProofing Humanity,” which will explore ways that those with a religious worldview can use science and technology to rescue humanity from existential risks.
A Fellow of the International Society for Science and Religion, Geraci uses ethnographic fieldwork, actor-network theory, science fiction, and the “hodgepodge of methods that all of us in ‘religion and science studies’ put to use,” he says.
“Overall,” he says, “my interest is in how we use technology to enchant and give meaning to the world.” That’s the thread we explored with him in “A Day to Honor Our Machines, the piece in which we first broached the idea of hosting on October 22 a Unitarian Universalist interpretation of the Hindu fall festival known as Ayudha Puja.
Geraci’s writings continue to inspire us.
“Can robots collaborate with human beings in religious practice?” he asks. “Smartphone apps that encourage religious practice may give way to robots that assist in prayer. What kinds of ethics are built into AI and what kinds ought to be, from mobile phones to military drones?”
The integration of AI into religious spheres forces us to rethink the very meaning of human practices, he adds. “If a robot can perform arti as part of puja to a Hindu god, what does that tell us about the human actors who usually do so? Has the religious logic changed or is it now clarified?”
Channeling the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy
The robot that strikes me as pointing most vividly toward the future is Mindar, the android priest that Osaka University robotics professor Hiroshi Ishiguro is developing in the manner of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy and compassion. It’s reported that his team has spent $1 million on the effort thus far. You’ll find Mindar in a 400-year-old temple in the ancient city of Kyoto in Japan, moving her hands enthusiastically as she recounts the Heart Sutra.
“Instead of eyes, Mindar has cameras in her head which she uses to surveil the room for present worshippers,” “Instead of skin, a smooth layer of silicone covers her head, hands and shoulders to give the impression of a human. Instead of a brain, a web of electrical connections and microchips control all her moving parts, from the opening and closing of her palms to the gentle movement of her lips as she speaks in her high-pitched, otherworldly voice.”
“Robots are the kind of thing that can pass on Buddhism to younger people,” says Tensho Goto, the chief steward of the Kodaiji temple. “This robot will never die; it will just keep updating itself and evolving.”
But isn’t it sacrilegious to worship a machine? Goto doesn’t think so. “Buddhism isn’t a belief in a God, it’s pursuing Buddha’s path. It doesn’t matter whether it’s represented by a machine, a piece of scrap metal, or a tree.”
Technology in the Realm of the Religious
“The entire field of human-robot interaction has become a space open to the inquiry of religious studies and theology,” Geraci notes. “When we conjure up general-purpose AI and the possibility of human-level and greater-than-human intelligence in machines, suddenly the impact of such technologies goes well beyond the mundane, and typically into the realm of the religious.”
“Given the ability of religious people to see divine messages in all manner of random and not-so-random material instantiations—from toast to spinning wheels—it is well within the realm of possibility that religious practitioners will draw increasingly sophisticated machines into their orbit. They aren’t all that different from any number of other religious technologies.”
“Most faith communities are just at the beginning of their journey in incorporating AI and robots into their practices. But this technology is here to stay, and could change the way we worship forever.”
Robots We Can Trust
Geraci explores all of this in a recent conversation hosted by David DeSteno, professor of psychology at Northeastern University on How God Works, a podcast funded by the John Templeton Foundation to explore the intersection of science, religion, and health. He’s joined Cynthia Breazeal, director of the Personal Robots group at MIT’s Media Lab and developer of Kismet, which she describes as “an expressive robotic creature with perceptual and motor modalities tailored to natural human communication channels.”
They explore the all-important quality of trust. If we’re going to start bringing into our sanctuaries AI-empowered beings that look, sound, and reason remarkably like humans, we’ll have to be sure they have our best interests at heart. And they should have “faith” in what they’re saying.
That’s the point that Geraci makes in “Religion for the Robots“:
“I reasoned that it would be a deal-breaker for humanity if robots had no religions at all. We would feel that they were coming up short in their approach to the universe. We would expect a fully conscious robot to come up with some theory as to its ultimate origin and reason for being. We would expect some robots to be saying, ‘It’s all nonsense.’ We would be looking for them to engage with the cosmic questions of the universe, like we do.”
Especially if we invite them into our pulpits. We want robot priests and ministers to sermonize and administer to our spiritual needs both with faith and feelings — or at least what we perceive as faith and feelings. More than that, we want them to value us as humans and trust them not to double-cross us. We don’t want robots that are going to lead us down the primrose path to technological tyranny. We want virtuous robots.
DeStano asks: “Just because we can make a technology seem more trustworthy, more wise, and more caring, does that mean we should?”
“I think people finding ways to see magic and enchantment and wonder in the world is a good thing. There’s a long history in Christianity of believing technology was kind of God’s way of making the world better. It’s very clear in Francis Bacon.”
“Bacon was a 17th-century philosopher and devout Christian who believed God gave us the smarts to develop technology as a gift to improve the world. We even have people in early 20th-century Russia arguing that the resurrection promised by Jesus was one that human beings were actively supposed to create through technology.”