Are we prepared to worship via machines rather than fallible humans? A Villanova University professor believes a post-human priesthood has its advantages. This depraved mindset shows how much our faith in almost everything is being tested these days. Everything is instant, yet nothing seems real. Yet we’re desperate to believe in someone — or even something — that’ll help give our lives meaning. For many though, perhaps a dwindling number, religion provides answers or merely some comfort.
Step into a church, and you hope to be embraced by values and celestial guidance. Somehow, though, suspicion about God’s human (alleged) intermediaries has grown.
I was moved, therefore, by an article that explored the notion that religion will be “transformed” by artificial intelligence. What exactly is artificial intelligence? Artificial intelligence (AI) is the simulation of human intelligence processes by machines, especially computer systems. These processes include learning (the acquisition of information and rules for using the information), reasoning (using rules to reach approximate or definite conclusions) and self-correction. Particular applications of AI include expert systems, speech recognition and machine vision.
Already, a Buddhist robot priest named Mindar is offering its wisdom to worshippers in Kyoto, Japan. Mindar is holding forth at Kodaiji, a 400-year-old Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan. Like other clergy members, this priest can deliver sermons and move around to interface with worshippers. But Mindar comes with some unusual traits. A body made of aluminium and silicone, for starters. Mindar is a robot designed to look like Kannon, the Buddhist deity of mercy, the $1 million machine is an attempt to reignite people’s passion for their faith in a country where religious affiliation is on the decline.
For now, Mindar is not AI-powered. It just recites the same preprogrammed sermon about the Heart Sutra over and over. But the robot’s creators say they plan to give it machine-learning capabilities that’ll enable it to tailor feedback to worshippers’ specific spiritual and ethical problems.
“This robot will never die; it will just keep updating itself and evolving,” said Tensho Goto, the temple’s chief steward. “With AI, we hope it will grow in wisdom to help people overcome even the most difficult troubles. It’s changing Buddhism. It is empowered to offer Buddhist teachings to a no-doubt rapt congregation.”
It’s not difficult, therefore to imagine a robot priest, bathed in supreme religious wisdom by the power of AI.
Recently, the subject has invoked humor. This is largely thanks to Anthony Levandowski, the former Google and Uber engineer currently embroiled in a lawsuit as to his ethical purity. A couple of years ago, he announced the creation of a Church of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) God. At the time, he explained: “It’s not a god in the sense that it makes lightning or causes hurricanes. But if there is something a billion times smarter than the smartest human, what else are you going to call it? Um, an annoying know-it-all, perhaps?
“Is it possible, though, that some familiar religions might embrace a robot priest, rather than the more fallible kinds the real world seems to produce. For example, one of the first things that come to many minds if you mention the Catholic Church is the constant sexual abuse and pedophilia scandals. Perhaps a non-human priest — armed with all the holy knowledge imaginable and none of the unholy behavior — might be the perfect way to renew the faith.” He said.
Ilia Delio, a Professor of Christian Theology at Villanova University, offered Vox some fascinating thoughts about this.
“Instead of trying to persuade Catholic worshippers that priests are somehow divinely consecrated, she said, perhaps the existence of robot priests would offer a new perspective on being a good person to deserve eternal life.
“We have these fixed philosophical ideas and AI challenges those ideas. It challenges Catholicism to move toward a post-human priesthood.
“Perhaps some would feel enchanted at being offered spiritual guidance by a robot. Perhaps they’d think this was far better than the same old stuff Reverend Fathers have peddled for the last 20 years.” she said.
Delio jested that robot priests have a better chance of being embraced by Protestants than Catholics. The former tends toward the more stoic and the less soaring than the latter.
There is, though, still one large philosophical problem. Or, rather, a technological one.
As with so much in AI, what matters most is who programs the robot. Elements of faith are — despite fundamentalist protestations — open to interpretation. If all robot priests were Bible-thumping fundamentalists, that might deter the faithful.
Moreover, how easy would it be to tamper with their teachings? Imagine an unscrupulous Russian hacking a robot priest to tell Sunday’s congregation that they should send their alms to Blessed Putin Fellowship Foundation.
Still, some religions are wising up to the power of AI in a slightly different way than offering robotic holy beings at the altar.
Recently, the Church of England created an Alexa skill so that, at any given existential moment of woe, you can call on your deity just by commanding Alexa to fetch it/him/her.
I know that those in favor of the Great Singularity believe that humans will soon be Gods. Robotic gods, that is.
Perhaps having a robot priest merely places us halfway to our own personal heaven. It is becoming widely acceptable that Robot priests can bless you, advise you, and even perform your funeral.