Softbank Pepper Robot programmed to Perform Buddhist Funeral Rites

A Japanese company, Nissei Eco Co, has written a software program that enables the Softbank’s humanoid Pepper robot to perform the role of a Buddha priest.

At a demonstration at the Life Ending Industry EXPO 2017, the funeral industry fair in Tokyo, Japan, the pepper robot priest was seen wearing a Buddhist robe and standing in front of the funeral altar.

People can hire the robotic Buddhist priest at a lower cost compared to the real one which could be seen chanting the sutras in a computerized voice while at the same time tapping on the drum.

Reason behind the robotic priest

The motivation behind this development is due to the aging and shrinking population in Japan. As the communities become smaller due to lower populations, it is increasingly becoming a challenge for them to meet the financial needs of the Buddhist priests. Nissei’s executive adviser, Michio Inamura, says that this is causing the some of the priests to look and do other part-time work in addition to their temple duties, hence the need for a robotic priest who can step in when the real one is unavailable.

Although the Pepper robot has been in existence since the year 2014 it did not have the chanting software and could therefore not perform the roles of a priest. This functionality has only been possible after when Nissei Eco Co, a plastic molding company, wrote the program.

The Pepper robot, whose developers claim that it is the first robot to read human emotions, has been in use in commercial places such as banks and retails stores where it provides customer support. The highly programmable humanoid can be ecustomized using software programs to perform various roles. In addition, it has the ability to move naturally while avoiding obstacles along its path. It can also identify sounds, as well as recharge the battery independently.

Cost of hiring the pepper robot priest

The pepper robot priest is much cheaper, costing ¥50,000 ( $450) per funeral, which is about 20 percent the ¥240,000 ($2200), the cost of hiring a human priest. So far no one has hired the pepper robot priest for a funeral.

Mixed reactions about the pepper robot priest

There are mixed reactions though, because, according to Tetsugi Matsuo, a Buddhist priest who saw the pepper robot, there is more than just mechanically performing the ritual, since there must be a connection between the hearts. He, however, did not say whether the pepper robot met his expectations.

Some people think that this is a dumb idea and a very bad one. First, the pepper robot can only bend, but cannot bow down. As we all know, bowing down is one of the main expressions of respect, but robots cannot feel respect or express themselves emotionally the same way as human beings. In addition, some people feel that is a bad idea to introduce a machine into a situation that fundamentally calls of sympathy and respect, things that even the advanced robots cannot do.

As people make advances in technology, there is a need to care how we integrate the machines such as AI, robots, the internet, and others into our cultures and lives.