The Dawn of Robot Religion: Programmable Buddhist Monk
One Buddhist temple on the outskirts of Beijing has decided to ditch the traditional lifestyle and use tech-savvy means to boost followers, using ‘robot religion’.
Longquan temple says the robot monk can sing Buddhist chants, move via voice-command, and hold a simple conversation.
Named Xian’er, the 60 cm-tall (2 ft) small robot resembles a cartoon-like novice monk clad in yellow robes with shaven head, holding what appears to be a touch pad screen on his chest.
“Who’s your master?” Xian’er creator, Master Xianfan asks. “I have so many masters, which one are you asking about?” Xian’er responds.
Xian’er can hold a conversation by answering about 20 specific questions as listed on his screen, and perform seven types of motions on wheels, such as turning and accelerating forward.
“This was originally the product of a combination of Buddhism and science. In this way, it shows that science and Buddhism are not opposing nor contradicting, and can be combined and mutually compatible,” said Master Xianfan
Under the careful watch of China’s officially atheist communist party, religion has slowly crept back since the beginning of the reform era, and Buddhism is no exception.
The robot monk was developed as a joint project between a technology company and artificial intelligence (AI) experts from some of China’s top universities, and was first unveiled to the public in October of last year.
He has since toured several international robotics and innovation fairs across China, but rarely makes public appearances at Longquan temple. He spends most of his days meditating on a shelf in an office.
Xian’er was inspired by Xianfan’s 2013 cartoon creation of the same name, intended to espouse Buddhist teachings. The temple has produced cartoon animations, published comic anthologies, and even merchandise featuring the cartoon monk.
Master Xianfan says Xian’er is the perfect vessel for spreading the wisdom of Buddhism and has already helped garner interest.
Despite Longquan’s somewhat remote location the Chinese Buddhist temple, over 500 years old, still draws crowds of tourists and practising Buddhists.
Zhao Xian, a tourist from Hebei province, said that she wasn’t familiar with Buddhism, but has seen the temple’s official robot on social media.
“I think the impression one gets is that a temple, in traditional culture, should be a very serious place. But he comes in a very cute form, and the contrast is quite big. It’s a cute contrast,” she said.
“He looks really cute and adorable. He’ll spread Buddhism to more people since they will think he’s very interesting, and will make them really want to understand Buddhism,” Michelle Yu, a practising Buddhist from Guangdong province.
Longquan says Xian’er has an official WeChat account – a mobile messaging app – which has already drawn quite a few followers.
A new model of Xian’er is now in development, which the temple says will have a more diverse range of functions.
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