March 5, 2024

Robot priests are unlikely to be credible: study

Robotics experts have had limited success with replacing human carers in nursing homes with robots. Nothing daunted, some have tried to create robot priests to urge people to pray and to awaken a sense of spirituality.

An article in Scientific American describes “Mindar,” an androgynous robot priest which resembles the Buddhist goddess of mercy. It is one of the attractions of the 400-year-old Kodai-ji Temple, in Kyoto.

One of the monks at the temple, Tensho Goto, spoke with the BBC. He said: “Robots are superior to us in this area. But I will die. They can evolve forever, thinking of the best way to do things and I think that’s amazing. This robot will never die.”

However, university students who visited the temple were rather sceptical. As Scientific American pointed out, the robot’s words were a fair imitation of a Buddhist sermon. But it was far from credible.

“Robots are highly capable, but they may not be credible. Studies show that credibility requires authentic beliefs and sacrifice on behalf of these beliefs. Robots can preach sermons and write political speeches, but they do not authentically understand the beliefs they convey. Nor can robots truly engage in costly behavior such as celibacy because they do not feel the cost.”

Not surprising, really. But the authors of the article went on to test AI on Christians. “In a third study, we measured Christians’ subjective religious commitment after they read a sermon that we told them was composed by either a human or a chatbot. In both studies, people rated robots as less credible than humans, and they expressed less commitment to their religious identity after a robot-delivered sermon, compared with a human-delivered one.”

In fact, in research published in APA PsycNet, they said that “Our studies support cultural evolutionary theories of religion and suggest that escalating religious automation may induce religious decline.”

Nonetheless, some Christian churches are experimenting with AI. The Church of England has released an Anglican app for Alexa. It answers theological questions, shares prayers, and gives information. The BBC interviewed a Polish engineer who has created Santo, a small robot which looks like a Franciscan friar, who answers existential questions.