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September 4, 2017

7:33 PM

I don’t want a robot priest to officiate my funeral (but it may happen)

Francisco Miraval

In the well-known science-fiction animated comedy Futurama, Reverend Lionel Preacherbot is a robot priest at the Temple of Robotology. However, in our time, beyond science fiction, beyond animated comedies, and beyond imaginary religions, robot priests are already here and they do participate in actual religious ceremonies.

Just a few days ago (Aug. 23), Softbank, a telecommunications company in Japan, presented Pepper, a humanoid robot who is also a Buddhist priest. Unlike Preacherbot whose main congregation are other robots, Pepper will interact with human and, more specifically, will officiate human funerals. (“Pepper” seems an unlikely name for a Buddhist priest from Japan.)

Pepper, promoted by another Japanese company, Nissei Eco, has an important advantage over human Buddhist priests, because it is significantly less expensive (up to 75 percent less) to hire Pepper for a funeral than to hire a human priest.

In addition, Peppers doesn’t need an assistance to read the scriptures or to play the drums. And, using his own eyes, he can broadcast the whole ceremony live from a very interesting point of view for those unable (or unwilling) to attend the funeral in person.

Pepper has a competitor in Germany, where last May a church in the city of Wittenberg presented its own robot priest, BlessU-2, who can pronounce blessings in five languages: English, French, German, Spanish, and Polish. In addition, the believer can ask BlessU-2 to speak with a man voice or with a woman voice. And BlessU-2 extends his illuminated hands while blessing people.

There are no plans for BlessU-2 to replace human priests. He will only say blessings. Yet, a robot monk presented in China in April 2016 will replace humans. Xian’er is a 2-foot tall, almost cartoonish Artificial Intelligence who can answer many questions about Buddhism. Xian’er communicates via smartphones and it is thought to be the first Buddhist Artificial Intelligence in the world.

So, we have Buddhist robot priests and monks in Asia and Protestant robot priests (or pastors) in Germany. And they are performing tasks previously reserved for those who performed those same tasks in response to what they perceived to be a divine calling. Now, Xian’er teaches Buddhist wisdom, Pepper officiates funerals, and BlessU-2 blesses believers.

What once was science-fiction, it is now real. What once was seen as an absurdity, now it is accepted. What once was part of an animated comedy, it is now part of real temples and churches. And the constant improvements in Artificial Intelligence and its presence in almost every aspect of our lives lead us to believe that in the near future most pastors and priests will be robots. Perhaps we will see a real Robotology and its Good Book 3.0.

Personally, I don’t like the idea of my funeral being led by a robot. I prefer for the priest to be as mortal as I am. But I can see some advantages of having somebody unable to make mistakes and unaffected by emotions. And it seems it is going to be quite inexpensive too. 

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