German inventors have developed a "robot priest" which dispenses "blessings" in five different languages and beams light from its hands, a machine some say is intended to fuel debate about artificial intelligence and Christianity's future.
In Wittenberg — the same city where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church launching the Reformation in 1517 — this robot was unveiled as part of an exhibition marking Protestantism's 500th year.
The "Bless U-2" robot has a touchscreen chest, a head, and two arms. Since the exhibition opened on May 20, visitors can select whether they would like Bless U-2 to speak in a male or female voice in English, French, Spanish, Polish, or German.
"We wanted people to consider if it is possible to be blessed by a machine, or if a human being is needed," said Stephan Krebs of the Protestant church in Hesse and Nassau, which is sponsoring the initiative, in an interview with the Guardian.
Bless U-2 recites passages from the Bible, and says "God bless and protect you." If requested, it will provide a printout of its words. A backup robot is available in the event of a breakdown.
"The idea is to provoke debate," Krebs continued. "People from the street are curious, amused and interested. They are really taken with it, and are very positive. But inside the church some people think we want to replace human pastors with machines. Those that are church-oriented are more critical."
While robots that offer blessings may seem strange to many, conversation about the intersection of the Christian faith and artificial intelligence is indeed already happening as robotics and new-fangled technology continue to accelerate. And theological questions are mounting.
In a February interview with Jonathan Merritt in The Atlantic, Kevin Kelly, a co-founder of Wired magazine, recognized the "spiritual dimension to what we're making," with the rapid advances of artificial intelligence.
"If you create other things that think for themselves, a serious theological disruption will occur," Kelly said.
"If humans were to create free-willed beings," continued Kelly, who grew up Catholic but now identifies as Christian, "absolutely every single aspect of traditional theology would be challenged and have to be reinterpreted in some capacity."
Kelly has reportedly begun advocating for developing a catechism — a statement of faith of sorts — for robots.
"There will be a point in the future when these free-willed beings that we've made will say to us, 'I believe in God. What do I do?' At that point, we should have a response," Kelly asserted in the interview.
Merritt further explained that others like Mike McHargue, who describes himself as a "Christian mystic" and is the author of Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost my Faith and Found it Again Through Science, believe that AI's rise "would draw out the ambiguities in the ways that many Christians have defined terms like 'consciousness' and soul.'"
"Any non-biological, non-human intelligence will present a greater challenge to religion and human philosophy than anything else in our entire history combine," McHargue said.
"Nothing else will raise that level of upheaval, and collective trauma as the moment we first encounter it."
Yet robots like Bless U-2 "could never substitute for pastoral care," Krebs said, noting that he also does not view them as a solution to the shortage of priests across Europe.
But he and his colleagues insist they want to "bring a theological perspective to a machine."