Xian’er, When Religion Meets A.I.

Margherita Olivo
May 6th 2016

It can entertain elementary conversations, give advice, say prayers. We're talking about Xian'er, the Buddhist robot-monk created at the request of a Buddhist temple near Beijing, the Longquan Temple, in collaboration with a dozen Chinese technology, culture and investment companies. Before becoming a robot Xian'er was a drawn character, invented by one of the monks of the temple, Master Fan Xian. He had already appeared in quite successful books and comics in China, that will probably be translated into English.

monk-robot in buddhist temple

The robotic version on the other hand will not be for sale. “We’re not doing this for commerce, but just because we want to use more modern ways to spread Buddhist teachings”, said Master Xian Fan, adding that its development was for “the public welfare". The robot, which is sixty centimeters high, is able to answer questions from visitors, but it is not always available. The New York Times reported that a group of people were denied the meeting, because Xian'er was "charging" ahead of the visit from a delegation of government officials, happening on that same date.

monk-robot in buddhist temple

Right now the repertoire of responses and lessons is still limited, but researchers are working on an updated version to make it more intelligent and wise, although its performances are already remarkable. For instance, to a visitor who asked "Who are your parents?", Xian'er responded: “That’s ridiculous, how can robots have parents?”. To a visitor that confessed "I am not happy," it replied: "If you’re not happy, what can anyone else do about it?". A New York Times reporter asked him (via chat): “Could there be another Cultural Revolution?”, it answered: "Wait, I will ask my master".

In this era of free available information from all over the world, religions are losing the appeal they once had. It is curious to see how these traditional institutions are opening up and facing new challenges.

Source: The New York Times. Image: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

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