Robots & Religion, Part II: which god? which robot?

 Article by Michael Szollosy

mr-ohmz-the-buddha-bot-v6As promised, following on from the last blog looking at some of the (rather comical) ideas by a pastor in the United States to convert intelligent robots to Christianity, it is perhaps necessary to look at other ways in which religion might impact on the future of artificial intelligence and robot design. However, rather than speculate as to the (very unlikely) possibility that sentient AI might suddenly find itself bereft of spiritual guidance and seek answers to the riddles of the Universe in our humble human mythologies (again, consider the fallible logic of QT1 in Asimov’s short-story ‘Reason’), it is perhaps more productive to examine how our own religious impulses and biases might affect our technological creations.

For it seems that, just like the Abrahamic God, we are creating robots in our own image (though, as we will see, this impulse is not limited to the Abrahamic religions).

It may seem like lazy cultural stereotyping or grotesque oversimplification to say, for example, that the Japanese are more comfortable building emotional relationships with their lifelike, humanoid robots, while engineers and consumers in the US and Europe are interested in only their robots’ functionality, and tend to spurn emotional  attachments.

But research conducted by scientists is demonstrating that such cultural differences do exist, and that the most important influence on the expectations and feelings that people have towards robots is religion.

Of course there are other cultural factors that one can point to in such different conceptualisations of what robots should be for and how they should be treated, but researchers from both East and West seem to be drawing the conclusion that it is the underlying outlook of different religions that is one of the greatest factors in these diverse feelings.

The thinking runs something like this: Japan, for example, is dominated by Shintoism and Buddhism. These religions are ‘animistic,’ that is, they belief that all things – including inanimate objects – contain the nature of kami, or ‘spirit’. Euro-American cultures, in contrast, dominated by Christianity, Judaism and Islam, believe that only human beings are endowed with a ‘soul‘, or spirit, and are therefore privileged amongst God’s creations.

Masahiro Mori – the Japanese roboticist that first developed the theory of the ‘uncanny valley’, and a practising Buddhist – explains in his book The Buddha in the Robot that, for Buddhists, robots and machines in general have the same Buddha-nature as any human being. The Judeo-Christian conceptualisation of creation, on the other hand, leads to a master-slave relationship between human beings and machines.


We can see how, from these radically different religious ideas, different cultural attitudes manifest themselves. Even in increasing secular societies, it seems, these religious roots run very deep. As a result, we find very different cultural expectations, for example, when it comes to the design and functions of domestic robots. When it comes to ‘look and feel’, researchers found that  Americans wanted robots to be ‘modern and stylish’, as appliances about the home, like washing machines, and had no particular expectations regarding the robots’ appearance, as long as it is capable of fulfilling a certain function. American participants in the study also wished for high levels of autonomy in their robots, expecting the machines to simply get on with whatever job to which they were assigned.

South Koreans, on the other hand, prefer domestic robots to be ‘warm, friendly and tender’, and were much more prepared to make emotional attachments to their robots; however, they also wanted their robots to be less independent – this, the researchers concluded, was because of the ideas in Korean culture (despite a significant percentage of Christians in the country) of the relatedness of things, derived from Buddhist beliefs.

Thus the researchers concluded that there are important differences between the American ‘utilitarian and independent’ expectations and those of the South Koreans, defied as ‘relational and interdependent’.

Robot Jesus by theFATkid

Robot Jesus by theFATkid

We may rightly ask, however, whether any of this matters, these silly old superstitions. Should thousand-year-old mythologies impact upon how we design the future? For better and for worse, absolutely yes, because these expectations will play a vital role in how are robots are received. Engineers, computer scientists and designers need to pay attention to such cultural differences if we are to successfully integrate our robots in various cultures and markets.

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