Ro­bots that bless you: A new re­for­ma­tion?

The Columbus Dispatch - - Faith&values - By Emily McFar­lan Miller “Ich habe dich bei deinem Na­men gerufen; du bist mein!”

WIT­TEN­BERG, Ger­many — The wo­man star­tled at the bless­ing.

In English: “I have called you by name; you are mine!”

It may not have been the words them­selves that caused her to jump. The bless­ing, taken from the bib­li­cal book of Isa­iah, has com­forted many for thou­sands of years.

It may have been the source of the bene­dic­tion: A ro­bot built on the body of an ATM ma­chine, whose plas­tic fin­gers sprung open and palms lit up as it raised its me­chanic hands in bless­ing, bright­en­ing an oth­er­wise gray, rainy day in mid-June.

BlessU-2, the bless­ing ro­bot, was part of an in­stal­la­tion by the Protes­tant Church in Hesse and Nas­sau dur­ing the sum­mer at the World Re­for­ma­tion Ex­hi­bi­tion in Wit­ten­berg, where Ger­man monk Martin Luther sparked the Protes­tant Re­for­ma­tion when he re­port­edly nailed the 95 the­ses to the Cas­tle Church door 500 years ago.

And in the same way Luther used the emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies of his day, the church’s ro­bot has sparked con­ver­sa­tion and de­bate; this time, ad­dress­ing the re­la­tion­ships between hu­mans and ma­chines — and whether they might lead the church to a tech­no­log­i­cal re­for­ma­tion.

“You can say it’s a bless­ing ro­bot. You can say it’s a ma­chine that reads bless­ings,” said the Rev. Fabian Vogt, spokesman for the Protes­tant Church in Hesse and Nas­sau.

BlessU-2 speaks seven languages in ei­ther a male and fe­male voice, depend­ing on user pref­er­ence, and of­fers four dif­fer­ent types of bless­ings: tra­di­tional, com­pan­ion­ship, en­cour­age­ment and re­newal. Those are taken from more than 40 Bi­ble verses, ac­cord­ing to the church.

The point of the For a list of re­li­gious events in cen­tral Ohio, visit Gath­er­ings at

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in­stal­la­tion was not to re­place hu­man pas­tors with ro­bots like BlessU2, Vogt said. It was to ask ques­tions: “What is bless­ing?” “Who can bless?” and “Can God bless through a ro­bot?”

But to oth­ers, that pos­si­bil­ity of ro­bots su­per­sed­ing hu­man clergy doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

Longquan tem­ple near Bei­jing has de­vel­oped an en­dear­ing lit­tle ro­bot named Xian’er that re­sem­bles a car­toon monk and an­swers vis­i­tors’ sim­ple ques­tions about Bud­dhism

and daily life. Ja­panese com­pany Nis­sei Eco has pro­grammed the some­what less adorable Pep­per to per­form Bud­dhist funeral rites com­mon across Ja­pan.

Some re­li­gious groups seem more open to the spir­i­tu­al­ity of ro­bots and other inan­i­mate ob­jects than oth­ers, ac­cord­ing to Robert Geraci, pro­fes­sor of re­li­gious stud­ies at Man­hat­tan Col­lege and au­thor of “Apoca­lyp­tic AI: Vi­sions of Heaven in Ro­bot­ics, Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence, and Vir­tual Re­al­ity.”

Bud­dhists around the world cel­e­brate fes­ti­vals that honor print­ing blocks and dolls, and the Dalai Lama has ex­pressed the idea that con­scious­ness could en­ter a ma­chine, he said. Even Chris­tian churches in the United States host events such as bless­ings for bi­cy­cles and boats.

Re­ac­tions to the bless­ing ro­bot in Wit­ten­berg have been mostly pos­i­tive.

One el­derly wo­man re­ceived a bless­ing from the ro­bot only at her grand­son’s in­sis­tence, Vogt re­mem­bered. With tears in her eyes af­ter­ward, she told him the ro­bot had shared her con­fir­ma­tion verse, lead­ing her to be­lieve “there must be a big­ger thing be­hind that.”

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