Robots: The Stuff of Religion

Many years ago, I wrote a paper arguing that religious cultures help explain why — particularly at that time — U.S. scientists and engineers were more interested in artificial intelligence than robotic mechanics while Japanese researchers had more interest in the robotic part. Whether you’re talking about robots that roam the room or robots that talk back from your imagination (I’m not a superfan of the Turing Test), in both cases I found religion to be relevant. And in both cases it’s interesting to think about how robots, loosely defined, now roam through the landscape of religious actors. This is a growing phenomenon: the Ganesha robot in India, the BlessU-2 robot in Germany, the various Buddhist monk robots in Japan, the Muslim chatbot in UAE, and the SanTO robot all represent varying ways in which people are getting robots into contemporary life.

This year, two terrific scholars in Europe (Prof. Dr. Inken Prohl and Dr. Boris Rahme) asked me to join them in commenting on robots for Material Religion: Journal of Objects, Art and Belief. I agreed despite the lack of a serial comma in the journal’s title. It is, after all, an interesting journal despite the grammar. So what does it look like when two Europeans and a Texan engage in a quasi-conversation in a journal about robots, materiality, and religion?

The first 50 folks to hit up the website for each short paper can download them:

Prohl asks how the study of material religion can help us understand the appeal and deployment of AI. Beginning with how AI already challenges boundaries of life and death (notably in the chatbot-fueled, virtual reality resurrection of Kim Kardashian’s father) and moving to the presence of AI in daily life through the Internet of Things, she points to the possibility of better understanding our relationship to AI technologies through forms of religious logic.

Rahme writes that debates over the future of AI have mirroring in the religious forms of language that we use to frame AI and its role in contemporary life. He notes that we have tools for thinking about matters like AI superintelligence (and some of these come from the study of religion), but we need not jump to the assumption that AI is fundamentally religious.

And in mine, I point out the actual presence of robots and AI (e.g. the robots mentioned above) means some interesting things for religion like whether robots can participate in sacred activities but simultaneously allows us to ask new questions about the logic of those sacred activities even before robots get involved. Whether or not a ritual works with robots tells us something interesting about the ritual.

All of us are discussing different intersections of AI and religion, and I hope that you find those discussions meet somewhere in the middle. We didn’t plan our contributions. đŸ˜‰ From academics to religious believers, we’ll see lots of opportunities to reinterpret our relationship to both technology and religion in the decades to come.

Again, here are those links: Prohl, Rahme, Geraci

P.S. That robot is Gabriele Trovato‘s SanTO.

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