Robots are coming for priests’ jobs, too

Image: Volker Rahn
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Would you believe in a blessing from a robot priest?

The Guardian is raising the question with a story about a robot priest in Wittenberg, Germany. The robot, aptly named BlessU-2, provides blessings in five languages and recite biblical verses, according to the Guardian’s report. It isn’t being implemented as a replacement for priests yet, but in the very town where Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation 400 years ago, his mechanical successor is meant to provoke discussion about whether machines have a place within the clergy.

“We wanted people to consider if it is possible to be blessed by a machine, or if a human being is needed,” Stephan Krebs, a member of the Protestant church behind the robot, told the Guardian.

Working the priest is not unlike ordering a meal from a McDonald’s kiosk. Simply select your language and the blessing you require. Then the robot raises its arms, shoots some light from its palms, and recites a blessing. If you want a receipt, the robot can print a copy of the prayer. The robot speaks English, German, Spanish, French, or Polish, and can have either a male or female voice.

BlessU-2 isn’t artificially intelligent per se (it’s not making decisions on its own, but rather just playing audio files of a blessing when the correct button is pressed, like a large iPod). But it’s interesting to think about whether religion is exclusively a human idea. If an AI-enabled robot were to analyze the new and old testaments and act in accordance with biblical teachings, would it qualify as Christian? Or are man-made objects ineligible for religious classification?

Krebs might be able to provide an answer someday. He’s collecting responses to the machine, in the hopes of drawing conclusions to some of the bigger questions about AI and religion.