The phrase ‘Deus Ex Machina’ is thrown around a lot these days, but it’s been a few millennia since gods were regularly delivered by mechanical devices (here in Western Civilization, anyway. There’s a strong argument that some Eastern religions have been doing it all the time, discussed later).
This article was kicked off by me remembering my visit to the Human Robot Interaction conference in Chicago last year. There was a scholar by the name of Gabriele Trovato there and he was presenting his paper on Theomorphic Robots. Like many papers presented at conferences, this a guideline rather than a research paper; referencing existing efforts and attempting to make some rules about it. I admit it’s a bit of a juicy topic, but if people are going to start building prayer robots, I think perhaps some guidelines are in order. A very helpful article about Professor Trovato’s work along with an interview is at IEEE.
The guidelines are straightforward and sensible, mostly to do with respect and keeping the mystical aspect of the divine by having the robot do as little moving as possible, and to reduce as much as possible user input to tell the robot what to do. A rule and ideal that seem to contradict is that the robot shouldn’t ‘impersonate’ the divine, but also that having these robots in the context of religion helps people be more comfortable with a functional robot doing some task (like keeping track of the user’s health). This, to me, seems like trying to have it both ways. The robot is being subtly manipulative by using religion as a mask (his word), but then shouldn’t be mistaken for true divinity but merely a tool/intermediary. This combines with the rule ‘don’t call it a robot’, which seems even more in conflict with the previous rule.
As part of his research, Professor Trovato has in the past produced two robots. One is the SanTO, a small robotic saint in a niche which keeps the user company and may – if the church allows it – one day help teach catechism. The other is a Daruma doll which assists its user in health tasks. Both do a task which other, secular, robots also do. My understanding of Daruma dolls is very minimal, though a quick search tells me that there are some traditions where they are burned at the end of the year. Images of the famous Core explosions of Aperture Science spring to mind.
Statues of Saints are something I feel I have a stronger grasp of, which is what concerns me. My knowledge of Catholic practice is basic, but I believe that people pray to their figurine Saints as channels for the Saints themselves. That is, you pray to the image of Saint Jude, for example, and the Saint in Heaven hears it. I think that this is why the icons are supposed to be 100% inanimate. People pray to the icon, and if the Saint chooses to answer, they do so in whatever manner they deem appropriate. Having their simulacrum bless someone could be a trifle presumptuous (I will avoid the B and H words, lacking the expertise to be sure of accurately using them).
Theomorphic robots may, paradoxically, be on firmer footing when they’re performing genuine religious activities. A funeral business in Japan is offering a Pepper robot to recite the ritual prayers, and has the option of livestreaming as well as recitation and ritual motion. The article brings something up which occurred to me as soon as I started thinking hard about these robots, which is the tradition of the Prayer Wheel/Mill in Tibetan Buddhism. These automated prayer objects imbue good energy and remove bad energy when turned by the faithful, and are often considered just as effective when powered by heat, wind, water, and electricity. The engineer in me desperately wants to know if the rpm affects how much holiness is generated.
The BlessU-2 is a similar idea. It will dispense a blessing in seven languages and two voices. If you want, you can print the blessing out and take it with you, in case you get audited by the Blessing Revenue Service and need to provide receipts for all the blessings you’ve gotten that year. The Church that commissioned it reportedly has no plans to replace priests with the robot, but considering how blessing congregations is a rote task, perhaps they’ll reconsider.
A more ambitious project is the Xian’er, the Buddhist Monk robot in China. It appears to be using a degree of AI chatbot architecture to provide Buddhist advice to people who ask it questions. Still in the early stages, updates are on the way, and it’s the only robot on this list that is allowed to provide advice by the religious authorities that govern it.
I wasn’t sure what to think after Professor Trovato’s presentation, but I think I’ve formed my opinion. I disagree with him, and I’m almost diametrically opposed to his proposed rules. I don’t think that we should cloak utility in holiness. A machine is a machine, and a machine in the theological sphere should assist in religious duties which a machine may perform. I included the alternate translation of “Prayer Wheel” as “Prayer Mill”, which is more accurate, and which shows that at least one religion has a place for machine in god. A Prayer Mill is unashamedly mechanical, and does not replace the need for spiritual effort on the part of those who benefit from it. Instead, like robots automating repetitive tasks, it frees the human spirit to contemplate something greater while the machine spins in the background, doing the repetitive but necessary task of purifying air, water, heat, and electricity.
To place a robot in the theological space but not call it one, and to have it’s use and value be in a secular (if worthy) frame of helping someone do a daily, but not holy, task is fundamentally dishonest to me. Many religious organizations have a secular side that helps people, like feeding them and running homes for the elderly or disabled. This is part of the ministry, but is as much about the spirit of the provider as the giver.
One does not pray to the wheat thresher nor the mill which contribute to the flour for the communion wafer, nor to the filtration system through which water flows before it reaches the pipe which delivers it to the font. We do not pray to the industrial machinery which shapes, bakes, and stamps communion wafers. Textile mills which produce vestments do not demand faith and praise.
Not yet, anyway.
Praise the Machine God. Deus Est Machina!