Can a Robot Be Divine?

Researchers explore whether robots can become useful sacred objects in a religious context

A robot with the appearance of a Christian Catholic saint can pray together with users and cite parts of the Bible and stories of the life of saints.

A robot with the appearance of a Christian Catholic saint can pray together with users and cite parts of the Bible and stories of the life of saints. Robots appear to be in the middle of a gradual but persistent transition from automated tools that perform specific tasks to artificially intelligent entities that we interact with socially and emotionally. It’s not at all clear where this is going to end up—people toss around the idea of robot companionship and even robot love with some frequency, for example. What hasn’t been explored nearly as much is the idea of robots in a religious context. We’ve seen a few examples of robots assisting in religious tasks, but what if robots could take things a step farther, and become sacred objects, embodying divinity within a robot itself?

At the ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction (HRI) in March, Gabriele Trovato from Waseda University in Japan (with colleagues from Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú) presented a paper taking a look at whether divine robots might be possible, and why it could be useful to develop such robots in the first place. Before we get into this, we should state up front that Trovato’s HRI paper is not an experimental one, but rather a theoretical contribution, which attempts to develop guidelines for the design of robots with a religious aspect to them. But don’t worry, some (potentially) divine robots do turn up at the end. Also, the researchers are well aware that people may feel that the topic of religion in this context is controversial, but they’re very specific in the paper that their goal is not to deceive anyone:

[The] robot shall not mean impersonating a deity with the purpose of deceiving or manipulating the user. The robot will still be a tool on which the divine is projected and can possibly act as intermediary with the divine, like any other already existing sacred object.

They also expect that “official institutions of a given religion should give its approval” whenever possible. In the HRI paper, Trovato defines a “theomorphic robot” as a robot that “carries the shape and the identity of a supernatural creature or object within a religion.” The appeal of a theomorphic robot, the researchers hypothesize, is as follows:

  • Accepted favourably, because of its familiar appearance associated to the user’s background culture and religion
  • Recognized as a protector, supposedly having superior cognitive and perceptual capabilities
  • Held in high regard, in the same way a sacred object is treated with higher regard than a common object

There is some existing precedent for theomorphic robots, which goes back to early examples of automation applied to religious ceremonies. More recently, there have been attempts at using robots in religious contexts, like Pepper assisting in Buddhist funerals or Xian’er, a robotic Buddhist monk. Both of these robots, though, are more like assistants, and they themselves are not inherently theomorphic: A theomorphic robot is more of a representation of the divine, which implies “a connection with a deity, be[ing] a messenger of the deity, or be[ing] possessed by it, or carry[ing] a divine essence.”

So how would you go about making a theomorphic robot, then? The researchers have some suggestions:

  1. Don’t try to impersonate the divine. Theomorphic robots shouldn’t try to fool anyone about what they are—they’re tools or intermediaries.
  2. Don’t call it a robot. Name it something else, and don’t make it obviously a robot, because that makes it more difficult for the robot to appear as a credible representation of the divine.
  3. Use of symbology. This can involve putting symbols on the robot itself, or more abstract symbolism, like having the robot blessed. If you print a citation from the Quran on a robot, for example, it will instantly become sacred for any Muslim, says Trovato.
  4. Context is important. Keep in mind how the robot is intended to be used, or where it will be deployed.
  5. Be careful with movement. Robots aren’t all that great at moving in ways that don’t make them seem like robots, and fortunately, divine objects typically don’t move all that much. This turns out to be a useful synergy, says Trovato. “Regarding movement and human-like communicative features, less is more.”
  6. Minimize user control. Deities don’t generally respond to direct inputs, and giving too much control to the user could make suspension of disbelief more difficult.
  7. Use light. Since the robot shouldn’t move all that much and the user interface is limited, consider communicating with light, which has a positive association with the divine in many cultures.

With these guidelines in mind, Trovato has two prototypes under development:

Design Strategies for Representing the Divine in Robots

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