Five hundred years after news of Martin Luther’s radical call for church reform spread across Europe, technology is again challenging religious tradition in the small German town of Wittenberg.
A robot priest that delivers blessings in five languages and beams light from its hands has been unveiled as part of an exhibition to mark the anniversary of the start of the Reformation, a Europe-wide religious, political and cultural upheaval sparked when Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door in the town.
Half a millennium later, the robot, called BlessU-2, is intended to trigger debate about the future of the church and the potential of artificial intelligence.
“We wanted people to consider if it is possible to be blessed by a machine, or if a human being is needed,” Stephan Krebs of the Protestant church in Hesse and Nassau, which is behind the initiative, told the Guardian.
The robot has a touchscreen chest, two arms and a head. For the past 10 days it has offered blessings in a choice of German, English, French, Spanish or Polish. Worshippers can choose between a male or female voice.
The robot raises its arms, flashes lights, recites a biblical verse and says: “God bless and protect you.” If requested, it will provide a printout of its words. A backup robot is available in case of breakdown.
“The idea is to provoke debate,” said Krebs. “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.”
Krebs and his colleagues are collecting responses for further analysis but he did not anticipate robots presenting a solution to a Europe-wide shortage of priests. A robot “could never substitute for pastoral care”, he said. “We don’t want to robotise our church work, but see if we can bring a theological perspective to a machine.”
The Wittenberg exhibition commemorates the anniversary of political and religious convulsions across Europe in the 16th century, resulting in the greatest schism in western Christianity and a string of religious wars.
Luther’s theses, written in Latin, fundamentally challenged the authority and elitism of the Roman Catholic church.
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 and explain basic tenets of the religion.