Guest Lecture: “Robots in Religion”

Pepper is a robot that performs funeral rites.

Kim Kyung-Hoon Reuters

Pepper is a robot that performs funeral rites.

Professor of Religious Education and Practical Theology at the University of Würzburg in Germany Ilona Nord gave a lecture titled “Robots in Religion? Challenges, Risks, and Opportunities.” The lecture was on Oct. 24 in the Center for Faith and Life Recital Hall and was hosted by the religion and philosophy departments. Nord studies the relationship between religion and media and is conducting research with the Institute of Protestant Theology and the Institute of Human and Computer Interaction on the potential implications of introducing artificial intelligence and the internet into a religious setting.

Nord prompted the audience to consider the relationship between religion, media, and technology. She has noticed a tension between religion and technology in her research, but said that religions have always used media and technology to articulate themselves.

“Some researchers are of the opinion that theology could be named the first media science,” Nord said. “If you think of cave paintings, temple buildings, religious dances, holy texts and books, and movies, all are used for religious communication. And religious leaders like priests are seen as a mediating agent between believers and deities. Are robots just another form of mediated religious communication?”

Nord described two examples of robots that have already been implemented into religious practices. One robot, BlessU-2, was created in Germany for the 500th anniversary of the protestant Reformation. BlessU-2 provides blessings for those it interacts with in under a minute. It was designed to create debate about whether or not a robot can give blessings or if human interaction is necessary.

Another example is a robot called Pepper, which was designed by a Japanese company to perform funeral rites as a substitute for a human priest.

Nord’s research was focused around BlessU-2 and how people responded to the robot. Of the 1,900 people that reviewed their interactions, over 50% of them responded positively to their experience, saying that they felt comfortable while interacting with the robot and felt just as blessed as if it had been a human priest. 29% of those interviewed responded neutrally and 21% responded negatively, saying that looking a priest in the eyes was important, and the eyes of BlessU-2 looked dead.

Nord noted that people generally had strong responses to interacting with the robots, whether positive or negative,

because the interactions raised complicated questions.

“Robots in a religious context challenge our current understanding of religious communication and what it means to be human,” Nord said. “This was obvious in the feedback we got.”

Nord posed questions to the audience such as, “What can a robot do for us? Is it the embodiment of an abstract idea of a being without desire? Is it someone who takes over reading? Why do we need them? What role can and should they fulfill?”

Professor of English Amy Weldon expressed hesitance about the idea of incorporating robots into religion during the question period of the presentation.

“I was unprepared for the depth of my alarm at the sight of a robot chanting sutras,” Weldon said. “It’s not so much a criticism of your talk so much as a strong response to the ideas of robots in a religious tradition. I find myself thinking, if I were an atheist, I would welcome this as proof that religion is meaningless. If a priest can be replaced by a robot, then what does that mean for those of us who still claim a value for religion?”

Professor of Religion Gereon Kopf, who mediated the discussion after the lecture, believes it is important to engage in discussion of this topic because it is cutting-edge research in areas that are important at Luther, a religious school with a strong computer science program.

“As a liberal arts college, we want to talk about the ethical, philosophical, and theological implications of cutting- edge research,” Kopf said. “For economic reasons, robots will become larger parts of our lives, so sooner or later they will enter religious communities and services.”

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