I’m not Protestant, but if I were, I think I would be concerned about the entry of the newest entity that has joined the clergy of the religion. The entity under discussion is a robot priest named BlessU2 that was created to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation by Martin Luther in Wittenburg, Germany. The robot was created as a tourist attraction and to stir controversy and invite discussion by a local Protestant church in Wittenburg. Light beams come out of its hands as it raises its arms to recite a prayer. It can talk in five languages: English, French, Spanish, German, and Polish, and it can recite 31 different biblical verses. As a show of sensitivity to gender issues, the robot can talk in a male or female voice. The mouth and eyes actually move and the face as a whole is very expressive, at least for a robot. However, no one should think that this looks like a quasi-human robot. As a matter of fact, the robot still definitely looks like a machine. The body is a box, and the head is a smaller box.
So now one of the last bastions of uniquely human experience that has been relatively free of the direct intervention of modern technology has succumbed. Forget about the fact that the creators of this robot have no desire to replace human clergy with robots. They just want to be provocative and get people to think about what it means to be spiritual and religious. The question is how in heaven’s name does a robot get to be a starting point for such a discussion? Are we to start looking at robots as God’s creatures similar to humans and animals?
In order to answer these questions, I think we first have to start with how our notions have changed about the cosmological environment in which we dwell. The traditional cosmological environment in which humans have lived is grounded with a world filled with spiritual entities and phenomena: fairies, angels, mythological creatures, gods, God, human souls as well as spiritual light and energy. These are not entities and phenomena whose existence can be proved by science. One does not know of their existence; one believes in their existence. Such entities and phenomena guide us in our behavior, help us to explain the unexplainable in our everyday lives, and help us to deal with death by leading us to the postulation of the existence of some kind of life after death. Such entities and phenomena provide an organic grounding to our cosmological space, what we would otherwise experience as a vast vacuum where we as humans would float as figures without direction or destination. This is why, up until recently, the experience of spirituality and religion has been so pervasive in human society. We can say that the human mind populated the organic emptiness of the cosmos with lots of different spiritual entities and phenomena and transformed the cosmos into a vacuum with organic grounding. And this was a way to prevent the dead emptiness of the cosmos from causing the entropic destruction of the human mind. Entropy in physics is the random distribution of atoms in a physical vacuum. But entropy can also result in the crumbling and dispersal of a human mind in an experiential vacuum. A person goes numb and becomes disconnected from the real world and dies to the world. This is what traditional organic spirituality and religion fight against and they are useful for helping many people to stay alive and feel coherent and together in their senses of self.
And what happens when spirituality and religion are configured and packaged as the complex behavioral entity of a robot? It definitely moves the source of inspiration out of a more traditional organically grounded vacuum into a more technologically based vacuum. A vacuum that is not filled with the organic connections created by spiritual entities and phenomena, but rather one that is filled with the more tenuous contingent connections of digital phenomena floating in a screen reality and virtual reality vacuum. It is a vacuum that has been depopulated of its organically grounded spiritual entities and phenomena and has been filled up with the digital entities and phenomena of screen and virtual reality. The cyber world is replacing the spiritual world to fill the vacuum.
Granted that robots themselves are material entities, but they are operated through artificial intelligence, and, in this case, they have a touchscreen on their chest. Instead of a spiritual soul activating this complex behavioral entity, there is artificial intelligence instead.
Although BlessU2 has been receiving the most coverage of robot clergy in the news lately, other religions have also gone into creating robot clergy. At a Buddhist temple on the outskirts of Beijing, there is a robot monk named Xian’er which recites Buddhist mantras and is able to converse with people. It’s only 2 feet tall, but it can answer up to 100 different questions. One of the masters at the temple has said that Xian’er was created to help bridge the divide between Buddhism and science and also to engage the younger generation in China. It was built as a result of the temple’s own efforts as well as those of artificial intelligence experts at a local university, and a technology company. Although it has traveled around to different robotic fairs in China, it spends the majority of its time on a shelf within the temple near Beijing. Xian’er actually began its existence as a cartoon character created by a Buddhist monk attached to its home temple. The robot is very popular among the younger generation. Like BlessU2, Xian’er has a touchscreen on its chest, for engaging in digital communication.
Finally, there is Isaac the robot rabbi. In 2014, it helped light a Chanukah menorah in San Francisco’s Union Square. It was created by a robotics professor at San Francisco State University who has also been head of the Robotics Society of America. Before it helped light the menorah, Isaac was entertaining the crowd with its own style of dancing. There is no mention in what I have read of any demonstrations of a more complex artificial intelligence. On the other hand, there is an article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (Saclof, 6/12/14) about a Rabbi Mark Goldfeder, who wrote on CNN’s website, that yes, advanced robots should be accepted as Jews and as a part of a minyan. This idea goes much further than the inventors of the robot priest or the robot Buddhist monk intended for their invention. Nevertheless, it represents a kind of thinking that is bound to follow as robots advance in their development and as there are more and more attempts to make robot clergy. It is unfortunate, because it becomes one more entry point for blurring to occur between robots and humans in the minds of humans. And more and more people will leave the organically grounded vacuum that was filled with different religious and spiritual entities and move to the technologically based vacuum of screen and virtual reality as the primary source of cosmological involvement. Perhaps there will be attempts to combine the two, and we will start finding God on a computer screen or in a virtual world. Perhaps computer screens or virtual worlds will be perceived as being haunted by cyber-demons. What will be lost in all of this, of course, is the unique organic coherent identities of humans. Which, of course, could create a crisis in our dominion over the world.
© 2017 Laurence Mesirow