The article published in the Washington Post on August 22, 2019, touches upon the fact that technology continues to penetrate into people’s spiritual lives and alter the way people receive religious messages. To be more precise, it describes an innovation that has been recently introduced in one of Kyoto’s Buddhist temples.
As Holley reports, a robotic preacher called “Mindar” that has been designed at Osaka University and whose cost amounts to $1 million, now delivers sermons in front of Buddhism followers attending Kodaiji temple. According to Holley, the robot has been modeled on Kannon Bodhisattva, one of the Buddhist deities, and is intended to deliver the teachings of Buddha to worshippers.
The article in question represents a noteworthy piece of reading which demonstrates that technology is all-pervasive and never loses the ability to surprise and bring attention to several serious questions concerning the potential of technology and its role in the human world. It is thus remarkable that in his article, Holley stresses that the creation of Mindar is an attempt to revive the interest of the local religious community, which continues to decrease, in the essence and messages of Buddhism and to help it to reconnect with worshippers (Holley). There is no doubt that the robotic priest is a fascinating innovation that is capable of capturing attention. However, it seems highly unlikely that the presence of a soulless machine would make it easier for people to grasp the substance of Buddhism. AI is able to do many things, but it is hard to believe that it can help to communicate and embrace something that is inextricably linked to human feelings and emotions. And what if one feels the need to ask questions of their concern or discuss something they do not quite understand? I do not think that Mindar will ever be able to fulfill these needs. The presence of a human priest, a person that is able to feel and reflect on what they say, will still be the best alternative because it can contribute to the establishment of a certain emotional connection (on the basis of shared experiences) or even understanding and to the meaningful exchange of information. It is, therefore, difficult to accept that Mindar actually understands the concept of “selfish ego” he talks about during sermons, and I believe that temple-goers would want to know that the “creature” preaching to them has a comprehensive understanding of principles they communicate, otherwise it is difficult to accept these ideas (Holley). As for AI, it will not be able to provide all that, unless it develops the ability to feel and comprehends the complexity of human emotions.
It is also worth mentioning that in the article, the reporter quotes Kohei Ogawa, one of the creators of robot Mindar, who says that for the future, there is a plan to provide the machine with an autonomous function, which would allow AI to gain more freedom of action (Holley). Undoubtedly, it is an interesting plan, but what it would affect the content of the robot preaches and enable the machine to produce new interpretations that would not reflect the true meaning of Buddhist teachings? Would it actually be possible to control Mindar? If it would, then how can one do it? And how would the robotic preacher’s presence change Buddhism, a centuries-long religion? Are these changes necessary? Either way, Holley’s article asks important questions that people developing robots such as Mindar should keep in mind. As for me, I struggle to believe that this unique innovation will bring positive changes.
Holley, Peter. “Meet ‘Mindar,’ the Robotic Buddhist Priest.” The Washington Post, 22 Aug. 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/08/22/introducing-mindar-robotic-priest-that-some-are-calling-frankenstein-monster/?noredirect=on.