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SanTO, a robot set up in a Warsaw church.Screenshot, BBC

(LifeSiteNews) — A faceless “Catholic robot” was put on display in a Catholic church in Poland. 

A short British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) documentary published last Saturday shows people of different religions, and in various parts of the world, interacting with robots or computer programs designed to deliver sermons, give advice, and teach them how to pray.

The tax-funded BBC included Polish Catholics in their provocative show, which was entitled “God and and robots: Will AI transform religion?” It showed one attempting to interact with a robot named “SanTO” in St. John Paul II Catholic Church in in the Bemowo district of Warsaw. It is unclear from the documentary if the robot can actually respond in Polish.

 

Italian robotics researcher Gabriele Trovato said he decided to build a “Catholic robot” named SanTO in order to help people pray. According to a 2019 story in The Wall Street Journal, SanTO is “short for Sanctified Theomorphic Operator.” 

The BBC presented SanTO as a brand-new invention, and Trovato said he got the idea that SanTO would be helpful to churchgoers during the COVID pandemic-inspired closures of churches.   

“It was clear to me last year during the lockdown, when many people started to complain they couldn’t go to church, that a machine like SanTO could give a hand,” he said.  

However, this was not SanTO’s debut. In 2019, The Wall Street Journal reported that Trovato exhibited a SanTO at a sacred art exhibition in Rome and “at an elder-care conference in Dortmund, Germany” in 2018. 

The robot was designed to look like a statue of a Catholic saint, although it represents no saint in particular, inspired by iconography loved by Trovato’s grandmother. SanTO — or the latest version of SanTO — was placed inside St. John Paul II Catholic Church, where BBC reporter Sofia Bettiza and a parishioner asked it questions. The robot is programmed to answer people’s question about faith and can quote from the Bible.  

Bettiza described the parishioners as “surprisingly open-minded” to the idea of a “Catholic robot,” though most of them said they still “preferred a human priest.” 

“Up until now, I was very skeptical about robots, but after today I’ve changed my mind,” said parishioner Urszula Rybinska, according to the BBC’s subtitles. 

“Sometimes a robot can help direct us towards the right path.”  

Another parishioner, Justyna Rutkowska, compared the robot with a “Catholic Alexa” and said the robot was “impressive,” although she quickly pointed out the limits of AI in dispensing spiritual advice.  

“I think the problem with artificial intelligence is that sometimes those answers are very vague,” she said in English.   

“You’re not asking where the closest restaurant is, you’re asking about spiritual things, so he’s helping you finding the answer.” 

Father Slawomir Abramowski was mostly enthusiastic about the idea but had some reservations as well.  

“I think we can use the robot or artificial intelligence to help [people] understand the teaching [of the Church] but not to replace the priest because it has no soul, it is not a person,” he said. 

Asked how he felt about a robot marrying a couple in a church, Father Abramowski replied, “It’s impossible.” 

Other religions too have explored the concept of robotic spiritual assistance.  

In Kyoto, Japan, a robot designed to look like Gwan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, was placed inside a 400-year-old Buddhist temple. The robot is called “Mindar” and is neither man nor woman. Mostly made of aluminum, its face is covered in silicon to more closely resemble a human.  

In the documentary, Mindar is shown giving a sermon to university students at the temple. The students later shared their thoughts about the experience, which the BBC presented as mostly positive.  

“When I made eye contact with Mindar, it felt like it had a soul,” said Nae Ikawa, one of the students at the temple.  

“Robots are the kind of thing that can pass on Buddhism to younger people,” said Miku Kiyama, another student.  

Buddhist monk Tensho Goto said he was convinced that this robot can teach people the true essence of Buddhism more efficiently than he can. 

“Robots are superior to us in this area,” he said. “I will die, but robots can evolve forever, thinking of the best way to do things, and I think that’s amazing.” 

“This robot will never die,” he stressed.  

When Bettiza asked Goto whether the practice of using robots to pray could be considered sacrilegious, the monk simply replied, “It’s not blasphemous.”  

Goto also opined that, though it is a “gradual process,” AI could very well “create a change in other religions too.” 

And indeed, it seems other religions are trying out the concept, including Judaism.  

In Paris, Lior Cole, a Jewish American fashion model, developed an algorithm called “robo-rabbi,” designed to give people everyday challenges.  

“I think it makes religion more accessible, more integrated into everyday life,” she argued.  

“Rather than being this separate thing that you have to go seek out, it’s seeking you.”  

Rabbi Moshe Lewin argued that it is “a very good thing” to use technology to help people “improve their spirituality,” but said that “a robot will never replace a rabbi because it has no soul.” 

Asked whether AI could be dangerous for religion, the Rabbi replied that it could, particularly if the AI “becomes crazy.” 

“One of the biggest dangers is the machine controlling humans and religions. I don’t think it’s what God wants,” he said. 

 To respectfully make your opinions known, please contact:

His Eminence Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz

Metropolitan Archbishop of Warsaw
Ulica Miodowa 17/19
00-246 Warszawa
Poland
e-mail: [email protected]
tel.: (+48) 22 53 17 100

 

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