Funeral robot dressed up

Pepper the robot performs traditional Buddhist funeral service

Image credit: Reuters

At an expo in Tokyo this week, a small, friendly looking robot has been demonstrating its competence in performing traditional Buddhist funeral rites.

Pepper, an approachable-looking humanoid robot designed by SoftBank, was launched in 2014. It was designed with a range of abilities, including basic emotional intelligence, and its makers have encouraged people to find new uses for the robot.

It is already being used as a receptionist and Spanish researchers are adapting it to assist patients with brain injuries. A new career path for Pepper, however, could lie in the Japanese funeral industry.

Dressed in traditional Buddhist robes and surrounded by religious articles, Pepper demonstrated its skills at the Life Ending Industry Expo in Tokyo. It played a drum, hit a wooden fish and chanted sutras.

Pepper’s funeral software was developed by Nissei Eco CO.

According to Michio Inamura, executive advisor for Nissei, many Buddhist priests are struggling with their finances as the population of Japan ages and slowly shrinks. Many priests have to find work outside their religious duties, he said.

A Pepper-conducted funeral service could cost as little as ¥50,000 (£360), compared with typical expenses of ¥240,000 ($1,700) for a similar service conducted by a human.



This is not the first time that a small, cute-looking robot has assisted Buddhists in their practice. In April 2016, a 60cm tall “robot monk” named Xian’er was installed in an ancient temple in China. The chubby, saffron-robed robot chanted holy mantras. A touch-screen display offered 20 questions and answers about Buddhism for curious visitors.

According to Master Xianfian, a monk and creator of the robot, technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) could be used to spread Buddhist wisdom.

“Science and Buddhism are not opposing nor contradicting and can be combined and mutually compatible,” he told Reuters last year.

In May 2017, a robot priest named BlessU-2 was unveiled in Germany to mark 500 years since the Reformation. The robot gave blessings in five different languages and shone lights from its “hands”, triggering debate about the potential role of AI in the church.

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