Xian'er 'meditating' with one of his real-life human counterparts

Robot monk spreading Buddhist teachings in China

A robot monk that has been installed in a Buddhist temple in China can chant religious mantras, move via voice command and hold a simple conversation.

Longquan temple on the outskirts of Beijing is home to the 60cm tall Xian'er, which resembles a cartoon-like novice monk in yellow robes with a shaven head, holding a touch screen on his chest.

Xian'er can hold a conversation by answering about 20 simple questions about Buddhism and daily life, listed on his screen, and perform seven types of motions on his wheels.

Master Xianfan, Xian'er's creator, said the robot monk was the perfect vessel for spreading the religion in China, through the fusion of science and Buddhism.

"Science and Buddhism are not opposing nor contradicting, and can be combined and mutually compatible," said Xianfan.

Although the Communist Party tried to eliminate religious elements in China when it took control in the latter half of the 1960s, its stance was later relaxed and religion has slowly crept back into the daily life of many Chinese citizens.

Only a small minority of Chinese inhabitants are still Buddhist – latest figures show just over six per cent – but Xianfan believes it fills a gap for people in a fast-changing, smartphone dominated society.

"Buddhism is something that attaches much importance to inner heart, and pays attention to the individual's spiritual world," he said. "It is a kind of elevated culture. Speaking from this perspective, I think it can satisfy the needs of many people."

The robot monk was developed as a joint project between a technology company and artificial intelligence experts from some of China's top universities before its public unveiling in October.

Although interest in Xian'er has exploded thanks to exposure on social media, he reportedly spends most of his days ‘meditating’ on a shelf in an office.

He has toured several robotics and innovation fairs across China but rarely makes public appearances at Longquan temple.

Xian'er was inspired by Xianfan's 2013 cartoon creation of the same name. The temple has produced cartoon animations, published comic anthologies, and even merchandise featuring the cartoon monk.

The temple said it is developing a new model of Xian'er, which will have a more diverse range of functions.

Another Chinese designer recently showed off a humanoid robot inspired by the actress Scarlett Johansson that has a 3D-printed skeleton which allows it to move in a human-like fashion.

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