It seems that every year, artificial intelligence and robots are taking over more occupations – from hotel personnel; assembly-line and factory workers; bus, truck and taxi drivers; and phone operators to telemarketers; receptionists; cashiers; pharmacists; pilots; proofreaders; barmen; and journalists.
Will the day come when rabbis – and other clergymen – are replaced by robots? Remember the story of the Golem of Prague? The 16th-century Jewish mystic, Talmudic scholar and philosopher Rabbi Judah Loew (Maharal Mi’Prague) performed a religious ritual and created the giant Golem that was awakened by Hebrew incantations in Hebrew and told to protect the Jewish people in the Prague ghetto.
But that was a long time ago. As contemporary rabbis would have to rule on the Jewish law (halacha) regarding this issue, it isn’t too likely that they’ll be objective.
A researcher at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business has already looked into the issue of whether clergymen will be replaced by robots. “I doubt that religious leaders will ever be fully automated because they need credibility, and robots aren’t credible,” said Prof. Joshua Conrad Jackson, who was the lead researcher. “As artificial intelligence expands across more professions, robot preachers and AI programs offer new means of sharing religious beliefs, but they may undermine credibility and reduce donations for religious groups that rely on them.
Why robots cannot function as religious preachers
Over the last decade, he wrote, “robots continue to infiltrate the workforce, permeating occupations that once seemed immune to automation. This process seems to be inevitable because robots have ever-expanding capabilities. However, drawing from theories of cultural evolution and social learning, we propose that robots may have limited influence in domains that require high degrees of ‘credibility’; here we focus on the automation of religious preachers as one such domain.”
His study was published by the American Psychological Association in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General under the title “Exposure to Robot Preachers Undermines Religious Commitment.” He and his colleagues conducted an experiment with the Mindar humanoid robot at the Kodai-Ji Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan. The robot has a humanlike silicon face with moving lips and blinking eyes on a metal body. It delivers 25-minute Heart Sutra sermons on the Buddhist principle that teaches “emptiness through the epitome of compassion” using surround sound and multi-media projections.”
Mindar, which was created in 2019 by a Japanese robotics team in partnership with the temple, cost $1 million to develop, but it might be reducing donations to the temple, according to the study.
The researchers surveyed 398 participants who were leaving the temple after hearing a sermon delivered either by Mindar or a human Buddhist priest. Participants viewed Mindar as less credible and gave smaller donations than those who heard a sermon from the human priest.
In another experiment in a Taoist temple in Singapore, half of the 239 participants heard a sermon by a human priest while the other half heard the same sermon from a humanoid robot called Pepper. That experiment had similar findings – the robot was viewed as less credible and inspired smaller donations. Participants who heard the robot sermon also said they were less likely to share its message or distribute flyers to support the temple.
While participants said they believed human preachers were more credible, it was still a close contest with the robots. On a scale from one to five, with five being most credible, the robot preachers received an average credibility rating of 3.12, compared with 3.51 for human preachers. “This suggests that there are a lot of people out there who think robots could be effective preachers, but there are more people who aren’t convinced,” Jackson said. While the robot preacher studies focused on Eastern religions, Jackson believes the findings could apply to other religions.
A third experiment included 274 Christian participants from the US who read a sermon online. Half of the participants were told it was written by a human preacher while the other half were told the sermon was generated by a highly advanced AI program. Participants in the AI sermon group reported the sermon was less credible because they felt an AI program had less capacity to think or feel like a human.
A robot, Jackson stated, “cannot authentically believe in supernatural agents if they do not have the capacity to believe, and they cannot engage in potentially costly behavior such as celibacy if they are not able to feel the cost. Unlike human religious elites, who profess a deep commitment to their faith which leads them to sacrifice time and material goods, robots are simply programmed to give sermons or blessings without an authentic understanding of, commitment to, or suffering for their religious group.”
While such displays of credibility may be unimportant in many of the other professions being outsourced to robots, they could be crucial for professions in the religious sphere, he continued. As a result, exposure to robot vs. human preachers may reduce perceptions of credibility, and this reduction in credibility should translate to less religious commitment.
“Robots and AI programs can’t truly hold any religious beliefs so religious organizations may see declining commitment from their congregations if they rely more on technology than on human leaders who can demonstrate their faith,” Jackson concluded.