The robots being built around the world seem to be as diverse as the cultures they come from. While some have been engineered solely for people’s practical needs, others have been made to appeal to and keep the company of humans.
While it’s clear that cultural environments affect the way people build machines, could religion really be the key factor? This is a question that scholars and robot-lovers alike have been pondering for years. Many have focused on the huge differences in the way that two major robotics power houses have been producing machines: USA and Japan.
So how could the prominent religious beliefs of these two nations be affecting the way they’re making their robots? Though many people in Japan consider themselves non-religious, Shinto and Buddhism remain prominent institutions. Within these religions, the natural world is worshiped and humans hold a glorified position within it. The term Kami refers to the Shinto notion that our natural world is filled with sacred entities. Because humans are considered to be divine, so are the things we create. From this perspective, it only makes sense to create machines which could be natural companions to humans; hence the Japanese fascination with robots that are life-like, cute and cuddly, and made to accompany and care for people.
As a predominantly Christian nation, it’s been suggested that — from a religious perspective — development of robotics in the US has been centered on purpose and salvation. In David E. Nye’s 2004 book, America as Second Creation: Technology and Narratives of New Beginnings, he makes the case that modern-day AI researchers seek a heavenly kingdom within virtual reality much the way early American settlers sought to create a second Eden on the continent. Similarly, the American/European eagerness to create a super-computer as intelligent as the human brain is conducive to the Christian concept of immortalized human souls in resurrected bodies stripped of their earthly nature. Following Christian ideology, if robots could be a form of such resurrected bodies, they should certainly not take on overly-human characteristics, as this would be an obscene imitation of god’s creation.
So from a religious standpoint it may seem that robots in Christian cultures should be intelligent and useful while robots in Buddhist/Shinto cultures aught to be enchanting and realistic. But enough about religion affecting the development of robots, could robots themselves ever become religious? Surprisingly enough, the issue has been explored by several researchers including Edmund Furse, David Levy, Anne Foerst, and Robert Geraci. The theme has also been satirically portrayed in the Futurama episode ” Hell Is Other Robots.”