Robot Funeral Rituals? Augmenting Religious Practice

One of the most prominent aspects of human life that has been little affected by the internet and robots is religion, especially formal religious practices. Church, temple, or mosque, religious practice is a bastion of unaugmented humans.

There are obvious reasons for this to be the case. Religion is conservative with a small “C”, embodying as it does cultural heritage in the present day. Traditional ideas and practices are at the psychological core of religious practice. Religious practice is not generally about “disruption” or “move fast and break things” (at least not in the thoughtless way Silicon Valley disrupts things.)

Another obvious reason is that much of religious teaching is about human behavior and human relations. Emphasis on the “human”. From this perspective, augmenting humans or virtualizing human relations is at best irrelevant and at worst damaging to proper human conduct.

But this will surely change. Religious traditions are living cultures which adopt new technology. It will be interesting to watch how human augmentation is incorporated into religious practices, not least because it may create some interesting, humane modes of augmented living.

Obviously, many people have already adopted digital communications and social media in spiritual and religious life. Heck, even the pope is on twitter. But this is the tip of the iceberg, little more than the twenty first century version of pamphlets and sermons.

What else might be coming?

For one thing, virtual worlds will surely need to be converted.

I recall some science fiction story (quite possibly by William Gibson, but I don’t remember) that had a brief vignette about a devout Catholic who loaded his personality into an avatar in a virtual world. This splinter of his consciousness (soul?) kneels in a virtual chapel and prays 24/7. In the story, this practice is approved by the church. I think the notion is that he receives indirect credit for this pious exercise, which is sort of analogous to other practices such as hiring a mass for a deceased parent.

For another, robots and cyborgs need to be incorporated into both theology and practice.

Along these lines, Evan Ackerman reports this month on a service in Japan that offers a robot to perform Buddhist funeral rites [1].  The “humanoid robot, suitably attired in the robe of a Buddhist monk” reads the sutras and bows at the appropriate moments.

The robot is much cheaper than a human, is programmed for alternative versions of the ritual, and can live stream the affair to remote mourners. (It can probably work much longer and faster than puny Carbon-based priests, too.)

It isn’t clear how this will be accepted or how popular it may be. To the degree that the funeral is for the comfort of the living, much will depend on how the mourners like it. A robot is not a sympathetic and soothing as a person, so I don’t really know.

There are, of course, theological questions in play. Do the words count if they are said by a machine? (Would they count if a parrot recited them and bowed?) There are certain to be differences of opinion on this question.

Thinking about this, I note another interesting possibility: a robot can also be remotely operated. A human priest could very well supervise the ceremony from a distance, with various levels of control. The robot could, in principle, be anywhere on Earth, in orbit, or on Mars; extending the reach of the holy man. Would this remote augmentation of the priest’s capabilities be “more authentic” than an autonomous robot programmed to do the ceremony?

Such a remote operation would have advantages. The robot would add a level of precision to the fallible priest—the robot could check and correct the performance. The robot can operate in hazardous conditions, such as a disaster area or war zone (imagine remote chaplains for isolated military posts). The remote avatar might bring a measure of comfort to people otherwise out of reach of conventional pastoral care.

Human priests would not have to travel, and could perform more work. For that matter, a single priest could operate multiple remote robot avatars simultaneously, significantly augmenting the sacred productivity.

Taking this idea of a priestly “remote interface” seriously for a moment, we can speculate on what other rituals might be automated this way. Something like Christian traditions such as baptism or communion certainly could be done by robots, especially supervised robots. Would this be theologically legitimate? Would it be psychologically acceptable? I don’t know.

I haven’t heard of anyone doing it, and I’m not endorsing such a thing, I’m just thinking about the possibility.

To the degree that autonomous or supervised robots are accepted into spiritual practice, there will be interesting questions about the design and certification of such robots. It might well be the case that the robot should meet specific standards, and have only approved programming. Robots could be extremely doctrinaire, or dogma could be loaded as a certified library or patch. I have no idea what these software standards might need to be, but it will be yet another frontier in software quality assurance.

There are other interesting possibilities. What if a robot is programmed for multiple religious practices, coming from competing traditions. At any one moment, it may be operating completely validly for one set of rules, and later it might switch and follow another set of rules. This is how robots work. But this is certainly not how human religions work. Carbon-based units generally cannot be certified clergy for more than one sect at a time. Will robots have to be locked-in to a single liturgical version? Or, like TV or Web Browsers, would a tele-priest be a generic device, configured with approved content as needed.

While we’re on the question of software, what about hacking? What if malicious parties hack into the sacred software, and substitute the prayers for a competing version of the rite? Or defile the word or actions? Or simply destroy the religion they dislike? Yoiks! I have no idea what the theological implications of a corrupted or enslaved robot would be, but I imagine they could be dire.

  1. Evan Ackerman, Pepper Now Available at Funerals as a More Affordable Alternative to Human Priests, in IEEE Spectrum – Automation. 2017.


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