The Catholic Church was all powerful in the medieval period and before, the teachings of the Catholic Popes whose authority over religion resembled that of emperors over the physical world. Martin Luther, who was born in what is now Germany, began to question this and wondered if all of the things done by Catholic leaders could be justified.
He began to put his thoughts down onto paper and what became known as his 95 theses was nailed to the church door. One of the things that Luther questioned was the sale of indulgences. An indulgence was a payment to the Catholic Church that purchased an exemption from punishment or penance, for some types of sins, but excluding murder. Payment meant that you could get one to excuse many lesser sins, such as thinking lustful thoughts about someone who was not your spouse. Theses “sinners” who paid for the indulgence were Catholic believers who feared that if one of their sins went unnoticed or unconfessed, they would spend extra time in purgatory before reaching heaven or worse, wind up in hell for failing to repent.
Now 500 years since those early printing presses began to spread the news of Luther’s call of “95 Theses” in 1517, thereby challenging Catholic teaching and leadership for reform of the church, now we see that it is technology which is challenging religious tradition in the small German town of Wittenberg.
The robot “priest” delivers blessings in five languages and beams light from its hands and has been unveiled as part of an exhibition to mark the anniversary of the start of the Reformation. Our little technological “priest” is called BlessU-2, and is intended to trigger debate about the future of the church and the potential of artificial intelligence.
In a comment made the Guardian newspaper, Stephan Krebs of the Protestant church in Hesse and Nassau, which is behind the initiative, said: “We wanted people to consider if it is possible to be blessed by a machine, or if a human being is needed.” As you might imagine, devout Catholic Church members will not be impressed by that suggestion, but Mr Krebs said it is all about provoking a debate, it may do that, although it is not likely to be met with enthusiasm from those that are church-oriented who are more critical. Although there appears to be a shortage of priests across Europe, Krebs does not believe that a robot could ever substitute pastoral care.
The robot has a touchscreen chest, two arms and a head and can offer blessing in English, French, Spanish or Polish, either in a male of female voice. Just in case you may be wondering, BlessU-2 is not the first robot to penetrate the world of faith. Last year, a Buddhist temple on the edge of Beijing developed a robot monk that could chant mantras and explain basic tenets of the religion.