The faith of a robot

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The story goes something like this. The eldest son of Philip II of Spain, Don Carlos, had a difficult personality. But he was the beloved of his father, and when in 1562, at the age of 17, Don Carlos fell down the stairs (presumably chasing a servant girl), he hit his head and suffered massive brain injuries, his father did everything to make him well again. But no doctor was able to save this dying man. So, out of desperation, Philip II took his son to the grave of an Franciscan monk named Diego de Alcalá. He was known for his numerous miracles, but had passed away some 100 years before. (His fame was sufficient for the city of San Diego to be named after him.) Philip promised God to perform a miracle, if God healed his son. And what do you know, Carlos got better. Yet, instead of the usual (a pilgrimage, a new cathedral, or even a nice crusade), Philip commissioned a well known clock maker, Juanelo Turriano, to build him a praying Franciscan monk. This 40cm (16”) piece of marvelous craftsmanship was so well designed, that it not only still exists, it is fully functional after 450 years. When you wind it up, the monk will begin a silent prayer, walking around and beating his chest in remorse. Once in a while, he will lift his rosary to his lips, fixing his eyes on the cross, while doing so. (If you want to see it in action, here is a video: It is not clear, however, if the story holds any water. All the characters are genuine. So is Don Carlos’ accident. And even the mechanical monk is real. I mean, we have it on tape.

Robotics has slightly evolved in the last four and a half centuries, so much so, that this spring an android held its first sermon at the Kodaiji temple in Kyoto, Japan. This robot depicts Mindar, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. It talked for 25 minutes about the Heart Sutra, an ancient religious text, and answered questions from different people. The whole service was translated into English and German for all the world to join. In an interview with The Diplomat, one of the researchers, who had worked on the robot, showed some amusement about the fact, that the machine has no understanding, of what it was talking about. Just like many religious leaders, as he remarked.

The word robot comes from the Slavic word for forced laborer. It was first coined in the play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Czech writer Karel Čapek. (Read it sometime. It is not long and the familiarity of the end will surprise you.) The purpose of robots is, to do all the lame, repetitive tasks, we all dread. And looking at today’s world, we see the progress we have made. Computers replaced human calculators, autopilots make long distance flights a lot easier, and a farm, that used to have a hundred workers, does fine with ten. And all that, so we have more time for the important things.

I don’t know enough about Buddhism to understand, why it is possible to replace a priest with a robot. (And no, this is not the first robot, serving in a Buddhist temple. It is the most sophisticated, though. The smaller ones are manly to explain the religion to kids.) But it seems to me, that their religious duties are of the repetitive kind. They leck, as The French might say, the esprit. The spirit. And this is, why robots will never work for Christianity, where it’s all about the Spirit. At the center of everything we do, is our relationship to God. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13, nothing we do is worth a dime, if Love is not at its core. So, it is better for us, to stop following God, if our worship could be done by a robot as well. But if Love is at the center of everything, nothing is impossible. And even in the mechanical monk, with all its beautifully crafted parts, you find love. The love of its maker. But a robot will never be able to love back.

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