2020-Robotic spiritual advisors

Alexa, can I talk to God?

Sat, 16 May 2020 08:22:00 BST

We are used to asking electronic devices such as Amazon’s Alexa to switch on household appliances, check the weather forecast and play music – but what about putting us in touch with God?

According to a professor at Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU), advances in artificial intelligence (AI) make spiritual robots a very near reality.

Professor Mike Mannion, of GCU’s School of Computing, Engineering and Built Environment, believes we will soon be able to buy off-the-shelf ‘spiritual robots’ that are sensitive to different faiths.

And he adds that, with the current pandemic lockdown resulting in the closure of places of worship, the need for such technology has never been more apparent.

Professor Mannion believes the scenario will be made possible by software that can be integrated into robotic personal companions, already beginning to emerge on the market, transforming them into personal spiritual advisors.

He said: “We are essentially talking about a piece of software that is a plug-in for a robot you have already bought. While the robots currently on the market look crude, they will evolve into a more human aesthetic in the coming years.

“But we don’t even have to wait that long. The technology and thousands of years of content is already there for a one-size-fits-all product. The information they could provide using technology available right now would range from the history of a particular faith, current affairs related to that faith and reminders about important dates and festivals. We would then see this technology evolve into a fully interactive spiritual-guidance programme to suit individual needs.

“The robotic companions that are already available greet their owner when they return home from work and ask them how their day was. It’s technology similar to that which operates Amazon’s Alexa.

“The next logical step is to go beyond simple scripted greetings and responses, and actually help people to develop their interior life and feelings – to support people with their faith if they have one, or to develop a faith if they don’t. It is about refining how it responds to you, the owner, individually, giving spiritual advice and exercises based on your particular faith and how you tell it you are feeling.”

Professor Mannion added that the need for such technology has never been more needed by society.

He said: “Given that many places of worship are unable to open due to the current lockdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic, these spiritual robots would have been handy for many people right now.

“The lockdown has illustrated that we all need guidance and time to reflect on our interior life, but the people who usually provide it – be that a priest, pastor or imam etc – have not been available in the traditional setting. If you can access the guidance these people offer in a more humanistic way than simply reading information from a laptop, or are looking to practise your faith away from a public gathering, there will be a lot of demand for technology that allows you to do just that.”