This year marks the 500th anniversary of Reformation, the movement led by Martin Luther against the dogmatic excesses of the Catholic Church that led to the birth of Protestantism. Thus, there can be perhaps no better way to celebrate it than what a church in Wittenberg, Germany—Luther’s home country—has done. It has installed a robot-priest, named BlessU-2, to bless the congregation in the place of a pastor. The robot has a touchscreen, two arms, and a head, and offers blessings in German, English, French, Spanish or Polish. Worshippers can also choose between a male or female voice. It raises its arms and recites a biblical verse—it throws in a print-out the words to boot. The church is looking at it as an experiment, to see what bearing corporeality has on spirituality. It can certainly start a debate on whether clergy can be substituted by a robot for functions such as reciting verses and performing a benediction. But the real challenge will be to get people to accept such a change.
In Reformation, a few challenged the establishments of the papacy under the Roman Catholic Church and raised questions over corruption in the clergy. The adoption of printing press—a new technology then—led to the rise of Protestantism. With artificial intelligence “upskilling” robots, they may become another technology that religion could rely upon. While Protestants kick off another debate, other denominations and religions may also look at robots for performing similar functions. After all, robots conducting marriages may not be such an absurd notion. While the clergy has readily taken to technology that expands outreach, will it accept competition from it? If technology is to replace most of what is work for humans today, why should priests be exempt?