Religion and AI.

Mindar — Photo by Richard Atrero de Guzman

AI has always been subject to intense speculation, much before it even existed.One of the earliest examples is in the 1920 play R.U.R. by Karel Čapek, a race of self-replicating robot slaves revolt against their human masters; another early instance is in the 1934 film Master of the World, where the War-Robot kills its own inventor.Today, however, AI is no longer imaginary and its implications are far-reaching.

Religious institutions are making the most of the technology to spread their teachings and even enhance the practice of their faith. From apps that can be downloaded to help with daily readings and prayer timetables to chatbots and even more complex humanoid robots designed to carry out ceremonies.

For example, developers in Japan created Peppa, the humanoid robot that conducts Buddhist rituals and perform funeral ceremonies.Peppa, replete with ceremonial dress, can perform a funeral ceremony for $462, cheaper than the $2,232 charged by a human priest to carry out the same task.

Countries like Japan are more accustomed to having robots in their daily lives and it’s not surprising to see them jumping on this bandwagon, although it’s not just them, robot priest BlessU-2 was built for the small German town of Wittenberg last year to mark the anniversary of Martin Luther’s religious revolution in Europe. however, despite BlessU-2 ability to recite biblical verses and offer pre-composed prayers, a robot could “never substitute for pastoral care.” Dr Beth Singler, researcher at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, too, believes that “robots are not the next stage of priesthood.”

While these are all significant in advancing religion and helping believers practice their faith, AI hasn’t gotten to that point where it can substitute for real priests.Globally, the chances of the clergy losing its role to automation is under 1%, according to willrobotstakemyjob.com.

According to Dr Singler, religions grapple with technology in three stages — rejection, adoption and adaption. Although to the credit of most religious institutions, most of them have tried to leverage the positive aspects of AI and technology as a whole.

Asked if automation is likely to increase in this sphere, Herman Tull, an expert in religious studies, especially with a focus on south Asia, compared robotic aarti to listening to bhajans (devotional songs) on the computer or on the radio. However, Tull, a visiting associate professor at Lafayette College, Pennsylvania, too, was categorical in saying that “it is not the real thing.”

“The performer performs it (aarti) not just by going through a series of rote motions…but by engaging mentally with the ritual or with the deity through the ritual. There may be an attitude of loving devotion, of joy in the god, or, of pure focus on the other-worldly,” Tull said. “The robot merely performs a physical act…and this really is not worship.”

This is one of those things where it comes down to how much of a decision will humans let AI make, and the more they cede control, the more powerful and influential AI becomes.

Perhaps a better question would be if AI can help humans with the task of living religiously active and fulfilling lives? One of the biggest advantages that technology provides is that of accessibility, with many religious institutions setting up websites for retrieval of quotes from holy books based on words searched and apps reminding people of the timings of their prayers and religious obligations and setting reminders in their calendars accordingly.

Functionally, most of the features that the robots we’ve talked about provide are similar to those provided by digital assistants on our phones like Alexa. When ‘Santo’ the Catholic robot was asked a question about heaven it responded with a line of scripture that contained the word ‘heaven’. It did not answer the question directly. In certain situations, however, this form of word matching and retrieval is extremely useful, and this is where AI and technology should focus.

Robots also pose risks for religion — for example, by making it feel too mechanised or homogenised or by challenging core tenets of theology. This might also do away with the ‘divinity’ that we associate with religion, the essence of a higher entity might be replaced by a mechanical obligation.

There is plenty of evidence that points to the fact that the involvement of AI will make it more convenient for people to practice their own faiths, however, with AI, there is always uncertainty with widespread debate over AI eventually overthrowing us and establishing itself as the dominant species.

Mr Boettcher, pursuing Ph.D. in artificial intelligence and spirituality, when asked about AI and its relevance in religion, said, “One of the fundamental functions of A.I. is to create groups and to create categories, and then to do things with those categories. Traditionally, religions have worked the same way. You’re either in the group or you’re out of the group,” he said. You are either saved or damned.”

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Abhi Avasthi

Abhi Avasthi

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I write about things that fascinate me, and make me think.