The twenty first century is the era of robots entering every aspect of human life. One of the most challenging, both technically and theoretically, are robots that seek to interact directly with humans in everyday settings. Just how “human” can and should a non-human agent appear? This question is being explored on a hundred fronts.
Robots have begun to enter into extremely intimate parts of human life, and, indeed, into intimate relationships. But these have generally been secular settings, work, transportation, entertainment, and home. Religious situations, broadly defined, have mostly been reserved for humans only.
Indeed, for some people, religious and sacred activities are, by definition, expressions of humanity and human relations. For all the handwringing about robots uprisings, there has been little anxiety about robots taking over churches, temples, or mosques.
Maybe we should worry about that more than we do.
This summer researchers from Peru discuss robots that are not purely function, not anthropomorphic, nor even zoomorphic, but “theomorphic” . Their idea is that robots may be designed to represent religious concepts, in the same way that other “sacred objects” do.
“[A] theomorphic robot can be: – accepted favourably, because of its familiar appearance associated to the user’s background culture and religion; – recognised 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.” (, p.29)
The researchers note that the psychology that impels humans to create robots, and to endow them with imagined humanity, is similar to the drive to imagine supernatural divinities with human characteristics. The act of creating robots is a pseudo-divine enterprise, and interacting with intelligent robots is definitely akin to interacting with manifestations of supernatural forces.
“[R]obots always raised questions on divine creation and whether it can be replicated by humans,” (p. 31)
In many religious traditions, concepts of the divine have been represented by the most technically advanced art of the time, including stories, visual imagery, music, and architecture . It seems inevitable that robots will be deployed in this role. Trovato et al. want to explore “design principles” for how this might be done.
Much of the paper is backward looking, unearthing precedents from the history of religious art and religious analysis of art.
One obvious design principle must be “a specific purpose that depends on the context and on the user” (p. 33) This principle is critical for the ethical rule that the robot should not be intended to deceive. It is one thing to create a sublime experience, it is entirely another to pretend that a mechanical object has supernatural powers.
They give a useful list of general use cases: religious education, preaching (persuasion); and company for religious practice (formal or informal ritual). In addition, there may be a related goal, such as augmenting health care. This is certainly something that will ultimately be incorporated as an option for, say, elderly assistant devices.
A paper about design principles must inevitably consider affordances. In this case, the question is intimately related to the identification and use of metaphors and references to earlier practices. One example is for a robotically animated statue may resemble traditional carvings, while its behavior and gestures should evoke tradition rituals. These features make the robot identifiably part of the tradition, and therefore evoke appropriate psychological responses.
Other dos and don’ts are phrased in pseudo-theological language. “A theomorphic robot shall not mean impersonating a deity with the purpose of deceiving or manipulating the user.” (p.33)
The list of key principles is:
- User Interaction
- Use of The Light (I)
The role of symbolism is, of course, critical. A sacred object almost always has a symbolic association. In some cases, this is represented by imagery or other features of the object itself. It may also be conferred by context, such as a ritual of blessing to confer a sacred status to an otherwise mundane object. Getting the symbolism right is pretty much the alpha and omega of creating any sacred object, including a robot.
The researchers are rather less concerned about human interaction than I expected. After all, a robot can interact with humans in many ways, some of which mimic humans, and some of which are non-human and even super-human (e.g., great strength or the ability to fly).
A sacred robot must display its powers and communicate in ways that are consistent with the underlying values it is representing. Indeed, there needs to be an implicit or explicit narrative that explains exactly what the relationship is between the robot’s actions and messages and the divine powers at play. Getting this narrative wrong will be the comeuppance of these robots. Imagine a supposedly sacred robot that misquotes scripture, or clumsily reveals the purely mundane source of what is supposed to be a “divine” capability.
It seems clear that digital technology will be incorporated into religious practices far more than has happened to date, in many ways. Robots will likely be recruited for such uses, as this paper suggests. So will virtual worlds and, unfortunately, Internet of Things technology (the Internet of Holy Things? Yoiks!)
This paper made me think a bit (which is a good thing), and I think there are some important omissions.
Of course, the paper suffers a bit from a pretty restricted view of “religion”. The research team exhibits personal knowledge of Buddhism and Roman Catholicism , with only sketchy knowledge of Islam, Judaism, other flavors of Christianity, and, of course, the many other variants (Wicca ? Scientology?)
There are general engineering principles that need to be taken seriously. The issues of privacy are bad enough for “smart toasters”, they become extremely touchy for “holy toasters”. If we are unhappy having our online shopping tracked, we will be really, really unhappy if our prayers are tracked by software.
There are also problems of hacking, and authentication in general. How ever a holy robot is designed to work, it must be preserved from malicious interference. The ramifications of a robot that is secretly polluted with heresy are catastrophic. Wars have been started by less.
At the same time, there are interesting opportunities for authentication protocols. If a robot is certified and then ritually blessed by a religious authority, can we represent this with a cryptographical signature (yes). In fact, technology being developed for provenance and supply chain authentication is just the thing for documenting a chain of sacred authority. Cool!
As far as the context and human interaction, it has to be recognized that there is a very serious “Eliza” situation here. There is surely a strong possibility of placebo effects here, possibly driven by totally unintended events. I predict that there will be cases of people coming to worship robots, not because they are designed to be “theomorphic”, but because the robot was part of a “miraculous” event or situation.
Finally, it is interesting to think about the implications of robots with superhuman capabilities, cognitive, strength, or motive. Even within more or less human abilities, robot bodies (and minds) are different and alien. Why should a robot not be designed to demand the deference ordinarily given to divine entities?
This proposition violates Trovato et al’s first rule, as well as their general ethics. But who says robots or designers are bound by this norm?
A sufficiently powerful robot is indistinguishable from a god
…and has a right to be treated as one.
- Evan Ackerman, Can a Robot Be Divine?, in IEEE Spectrum – Robotics. 2018. https://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/artificial-intelligence/can-a-robot-be-divine
- Norman M. Klein, The Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects, New York, The New Press, 2004.
- Gabriele Trovato, Cesar Lucho, Alexander Huerta-Mercado, and Francisco Cuellar, Design Strategies for Representing the Divine in Robots, in 2018 ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction. 2018: Chicago, IL, USA. p. 29-35. https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=3173386.317
- Kirsten C. Uszkalo, Bewitched and Bedeviled: A Cognitive Approach to Embodiment in Early English Possession. First ed, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.