UCA News
William Grimm, a native of New York City, is a missioner and presbyter who since 1973 has served in Japan, Hong Kong and Cambodia.
Robotic religion is no answer to modern disaffection
Published: March 11, 2019 04:49 AM
Robotic religion is no answer to modern disaffection

A file image of a robot produced by Japan's Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories called 'Kodomoroid' Japan 2014 as seen at a 2017 exhibition. (Photo by Ben Stansall/AFP)

Japan is a world leader in the development and use of robots. In addition to robots in manufacturing plants, the country has robotic hotel staff, robotic pets, robotic waiters, robotic caregivers for the elderly and various other replacements for the country’s dwindling human population.

Now, a Buddhist temple in Kyoto has introduced an android catechist to explain Buddhist teachings to visitors.

The robot in the Kodaiji Temple is tall — about 195 cm, 6' 5" — and thin — about 60 kg, 132 lbs — and looks vaguely reminiscent of the android C3PO in the Star Wars movies, though made of aluminum and with a female voice. However, its (her?) silicone hands and face look human, even to the point of presenting various facial expressions and hand gestures to accompany its speech.

The face of the robot, named Mainda (minder), is patterned on the traditional Japanese representation of Kannon, generally known in English as the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion, an inaccurate description since Buddhism is non-theistic, without gods or goddesses.

At a recent press conference where the robot was introduced, Mainda gave a talk on Buddhist teaching while Chinese and English translations were projected on the wall behind her.

See Mainda in this video below:



Ironically, when I wanted to forward an article about Mainda, I had to click a box on the newspaper’s site that declares “I am not a robot.”

Catholics already have confession apps. Will we soon see android archbishops? Considering what the Church has been going through lately because of the flesh and blood type, that might be a desirable improvement.

Actually, Christians have been using various means similar to Mainda for centuries, with the same scant results we can expect the robot to produce. Those means have not been electronic but otherwise embody the attitude of the head of the Kodaiji Temple who said, “If an image of the Buddha speaks, the teachings of Buddhism will probably be easier to understand.”

Evangelical Protestants and even Catholic proselytizers hand out Bibles. Catholics will frequently do likewise with the catechism, thinking an inanimate book is the surest means to move hearts and minds.

In some cases, it does, just as in some cases an inanimate but animated robot may do so. Many others look to sermons, homilies and talks to achieve conversion in their hearers. For the most part, though, the attempts fall flat.

Words, whether automated, printed or spoken, seldom have great impact except when presented by someone with extraordinary talent. And I have endured enough unanimated sermons to know that such talent is, indeed, extraordinary.

So if non-android preachers, prelates and popes have little lasting effect upon their hearers, it is unlikely that a contraption of wires, mother boards and motors will do any better. Artificial intelligence is not yet, and probably never will be, at the point where it can model the compassion of Buddhism or the love of Christianity.

At a recent workshop on “Robo-ethics: Humans, Machines and Health” sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, Marita Caballo, president of the Argentine National Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, said: “An eye-to-eye connection, a hug, cannot be replaced by a robot.” In other words, the human contact that is necessary to conveying a life-enhancing, life-changing message cannot be duplicated by a machine.

A Japanese poem says: “Those who speak are noble; those who without knowing it themselves speak with their bodies are nobler. Those who give guidance are noble; those who without knowing it guide by example are nobler.”

Actions do, indeed, speak louder than words. People are not looking for more words from the Church. We have libraries and documents full of them. People want to see the fruits of belief in action. They will find talk of God’s love unbelievable if they do not first experience that love.

Since Christian faith is about a relationship, it is through relationships rather than information that people will encounter God in their lives.

Unfortunately, the public face of the Church, the hierarchy and clergy is a poor model these days and is likely to remain so for a generation or more while the Church gets its house in order and the current situation becomes a matter more of history than current and impending events. So, the “private” face of the Church must take up the mission with extra commitment and vigor.

In other words, the laity who have always been the heart of the Church must be more proactive in evangelization. That will require two things. The first is that lay people must free themselves from the shackles of a passive attitude that the clergy are in charge. They need not and must not wait for clerical permission or guidance. The Holy Spirit provides those.

The second, and perhaps more difficult, task is to cure the clergy of the infection of clericalism that has become septic in the Body of Christ. Perhaps the only way this will be cured is by the dwindling of the priest population.

Then, we must hope that they not be replaced by robots.

Father William Grimm, MM, is the publisher of ucanews.com and is based in Tokyo.

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