In Kyoto, an ancient temple (built over 400 years ago) tries to rekindle interest in Buddhism with a robotic monk. Is he a freak or will he lead the way?
The robot bonze recites sermons to the Kodaiji temple in Kyoto, and his human colleagues predict that thanks to his artificial intelligence he will someday acquire unlimited awareness and wisdom.
"This robot will never die, it will endlessly keep updating and evolving," declares the bonze Tensho Goto in an interview with the French agency France-Presse.
“This is the beauty of a robot. It can keep knowledge forever and without limits. With AI it will grow in wisdom to help people overcome even the most difficult problems. Buddhism will change ".
The robot bonzo has been "in service" a few months ago. He currently moves his torso, head and arms: only his shoulders, face and hands are covered in silicone to replicate human skin, the rest show cables and circuits.
In his skull you can see the lights and the mechanical parts used: the appearance is of a neutral gender. In the left eye a small camera allows the android to monitor who is in front of him as he joins his hands in prayer and speaks in a mystical tone.
It is not a provocation
Despite the context of this news, Mindar (this is the android's name) is not a toy, nor a tourist attraction. It was developed with a joint venture between the Zen temple and prof. Hiroshi Ishiguro of the Osaka University, and it cost almost one and a half million euros.
Mindar provides teachings on compassion and advice to ward off the dangers of anger, desire and ego.
Given the increasingly secondary influence of religion on Japanese everyday life, Goto hopes that the robot bonze of the Kodaiji temple will be able to touch the hearts of the new generations in a different and more effective way than traditional monks.
“It can be difficult for younger people to relate to an old-fashioned religious like me, but a robot could be the right solution to overcome this distance. We would like people to reflect on the essence of Buddhism also through an android ”.
The robot bonze recites sermons in Japanese from the Pure Land Sutras, with English and Chinese translations projected onto the screen.
The Kodaiji temple has obviously faced harsh criticism of blasphemy for this unusual and technological choice, mostly from foreigners.
“Curiously, Westerners are the ones most bothered by the robot, which they compare to a monster like Frankenstein. On the contrary, the feedback from our Japanese compatriots is largely positive, " says Goto.
It is clear that the Japanese have very little prejudice about robots: their whole modern popular culture is founded on the figure of the friendly robot.
For the religious of the temple, dedicated to Kannon, Goddess of compassion, the android is only the latest incarnation of this deity known for its ability to transform.
"If artificial intelligence was designed to outdo us evolutionarily, it makes sense for the Buddha to also manifest itself in a robot," says Goto.