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?
Mr. Trovato presented SanTO—short for Sanctified Theomorphic Operator—at a sacred-art exposition in Rome in February 2018 and at an elder-care conference in Dortmund, Germany, in May 2018. He’s now refining and testing the device in Lima, Peru. Mr. Trovato has also sought feedback from nursing homes in Japan, where he demonstrated another of his robots, DarumaTO, a red, spherical device, also intended for the elderly, inspired by Japanese Daruma dolls. (These dolls are associated with setting goals and wishes, and are named after a Buddhist monk thought to have lived during the 5th or 6th century.) He’s also developing a device for Muslims in consultation with an imam.
Like any new technology, robotics raises ethical questions for spiritual institutions, especially as interactive machines get more sophisticated and mainstream. Robots are already able to share religious content and “recite” blessings, tasks traditionally reserved for faith leaders and adherents.
Mr. Trovato said he had consulted with religious officials, who cautioned him that his robots should not offer interpretations of texts. “They said there is a human factor which is very important in the communication of faith,” Mr. Trovato said. “Even choosing the right text, the right part of the Bible, is not something you can do easily,” he added, referring to the content his robot is programmed to recite. Mr. Trovato said he tends to get more negative feedback from scientists, some of whom view religion as futile or taboo.
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