(WSJ) Deus Ex Machina: More Religions Use Robots to Connect With the Public

Gabriele Trovato is worried about tomorrow. Or at least that’s what he confesses to SanTO, one of his religion-inspired robots. Just shy of 17 inches tall, SanTO resembles those small figurines of saints often found in Catholic homes—except with a computer, microphone, sensors and a facial recognition-enabled camera. As Mr. Trovato touches and speaks to the machine, its deep, echoing voice responds with a Bible quote: “From the Gospel according to Matthew,” it says, “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Mr. Trovato, a roboticist and assistant professor at Japan’s Waseda University, designed SanTO to provide comfort and assistance to the elderly. Interactive, social robots like ElliQ, a robot companion for seniors, or Sony’s Aibo robot dog are increasingly seen as a means to alleviate loneliness, entertain and provide information. But they can do better at making users comfortable with the technology, Mr. Trovato said, by incorporating cultural touchstones including religious features. At the same time, a handful of religious institutions are developing robots to converse with visitors and share doctrine. These robots are not meant to replace religious leaders, but they can make religious information more accessible or spur attendance to places of worship. “Religion has evolved through history, from oral tradition to written tradition to press and mass media. So it’s very reasonable to think that AI and robotics will help religion to spread out more,” Mr. Trovato said.

Eventually, says Robert Geraci, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, robots might become more than just tools. “One possibility is that religion gets radically reformulated in collaboration with the advancement of technology,” he said. Another is that technology-celebrating movements such as transhumanism could compete with traditional religions. Should they ever become sentient, robots could join faiths themselves, raising questions about religious identity, he said. Would a robot count for a minyan, a Jewish quorum for religious obligations?

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