A combination of AI technology and religion? Japanese AI innovations related to Buddhism.

Author: Caijun Zhao

News released on 12th Sep 2022 stated that Kyoto University had developed augmented reality (AR) content using artificial intelligence, allowing users to interact with a “Buddha” on a smartphone. 

This is developed to help people with worries and need to listen to the teachings of Buddhism. When the user holds up a smartphone, an avatar of Buddha appears, and it can give 1000 patterns of answers to users’ worries. After “Buddha” listens to the concerns of users, “Buddha” will answer by message or voice. This combines the function of the smartphone’s camera and AI technology. Seiji Kumagai, an associate professor at Kyoto University, is the developer of this APP.  He explained the idea behind this innovation: “ we would like to provide people with healing and fun by fusing traditional knowledge and science.”

This is not the first step that robot is used in religion-related activities. As early as 2019, a robot called Mindar, modeled after Kannon Bodhisattva was unveiled to the media in Kyoto. Mindar is designed to explain Buddha’s teachings to help people better understand Buddhism’s essence. After the debut of Mindar, it has been actively preaching to troubled people and “working” in Kodaiji Temple to show how people with worries can obtain peace of mind. It is not only a robot with the resemble appearance of Kannon Bodhisattva, but also able to reveal the essence of the Buddha’s teaching in plain language to the audience. In a country where religious affiliation is declining, these are also attempting to reignite people’s passion for their faith. For now, Mindar is not AI-powered, but the developers have the plan to give it machine-learning capabilities. This shows the potential that AI robots may replace human religious leaders and change religions in the future. 

Many people worry about this change, as robots stand to change how people experience faith. These religious experiences leave room for the spontaneous, the emotional, and even the mystical. This is considered a valuable part of religion. Robots may lead to a mechanized or homogenized experience, which poses risks for challenging core tenets of theology. The acceptance of robots varies among different religions and different regions. In Japan, it seems that people who visit Mindar are not too bothered by the risks because robots are already so commonplace in Japan. In addition, Buddhism’s non-dualistic metaphysical notion that everything has inherent “Buddha nature,” which elaborates on the potential of becoming enlightened applies to everything, including robots. On the contrary, because of theological differences, westerners tend to have a more negative reaction to robots like Mindar. 

Reference:

お悩みに「AIブッダ」が回答、京都大学、AR活用 https://www.nikkei.com/article/DGXZQOUC09CC00Z00C22A9000000/

アンドロイド觀音マインダー、高台寺 https://www.kodaiji.com/mindar/

Sigal Samuel (2020). Robot priests can bless you, advise you, and even perform your funeral. VOX. https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/9/9/20851753/ai-religion-robot-priest-mindar-buddhism-christianity

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