BlessU-2: a robot priest and the parable of technological emptiness

“Bless me, Robot, for I have sinned.”

“Do you want to receive absolution in a male voice or a female voice?”

The penitent presses a button on a touchscreen torso, and BlessU-2 (as it is named) raises its arms, its hands light up, and the blessing is spoken (or printed, if you prefer) with a bit of eyebrow action. BlessU-2 can honour, laud and magnify in English, German, French, Spanish or Polish…

The robot priest has been installed in Wittenberg to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. “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 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.”

No skubalon, Sherlock.

“We don’t want to robotise our church work, but see if we can bring a theological perspective to a machine,” Krebs explained.

Now this is interesting. Can a machine bless? What actually is a blessing? Are the programmed words spoken by BlessU-2 any less efficacious than a liturgical form of words blurted out mechanically by a cyborg vicar who doesn’t really give a damn? If a priest does not mean the words he (or she) proclaims, are they any more effectual than the fervent words spoken by a robot? Does blessing require a righteous spirit? Does it demand a right spirit? Does it require a spirit at all? Is a wrong spirit more unproductive than no spirit? Can Artificial Intelligence help plug the gap caused by plummeting vocations? Do we need incarnational absolution, or could a kind of church checkout machine make confession easier? If you can cut your time in Purgatory by following the Pope on Twitter, why can’t AI play a role in a ministerial team? It could certainly perform some of those innovatory liturgical functions which trouble the consciences of traditionalists, weighed down by centuries of dogma and truth.

“People from the street are curious, amused and interested. They are really taken with it, and are very positive…”

BlessU-2 has made the BBC and other mainstream media. It is clearly helping to raise awareness of that other revolution which began in Wittenberg 500 years ago. Its diodes and flashing bulbs are helping to spread the word, just like the printing press did for Martin Luther and his 95 Theses.

And yet… and yet…

BlessU-2 is a conceit of postmodernity, a robot priest unhitched from the past and stripped of all values. It may represent a form of technological progress, but it is no substitute for incarnational apprehensions of truth and sacerdotal wisdom. People gather and are curious because anything on the cutting edge of robotics must be superior to the dullsville of God’s creation. And we persist with this delusion despite the fact that, while our lives are blessed with unprecedented wealth and unimaginable knowledge, society is plagued by emptiness, superficiality, banality and destructiveness. The church needs to remain human and be more human, more serious, and more profound, for real people are its wealth: ‘But we have this treasure in earthen vessels‘ (2Cor 4:7). Our task is to become holy disciples, captivated by Christ; not air-headed zombies, mesmerised by computers, contraptions and flashing gadgets.