Funerals aren’t cheap. In Japan in particular, the average cost of a funeral is over £20,000, according to a 2008 Consumer Association report, with human priests costing around £1700. Enter Pepper, SoftBank’s humanoid robot, who is now donning robes and offering to perform the ceremony for a small fraction of the price at £350.
The robot priest has been programmed not only to chant sutras in a computerised voice, but to simultaneously tap a drum in time. Pepper’s clerical capabilities were demonstrated at the Life Ending Industry Expo in Tokyo last Wednesday, where the SoftBank creation is reported to have attracted many curious visitors.
Watch Pepper in action below:
It seems very few careers remain immune to the onward creep of automation. The development comes at a time when Buddhist priests are receiving less and less financial support, with many seeking work outside their holy duties. According to the Guardian, Pepper is yet to be selected to perform a funeral ceremony, but the offer – which includes an optional live stream to absent friends and family – will no doubt be taken up before long.
Tetsugi Matsuo, a Buddhist priest interviewed at the expo, believes that “the ultimate test is whether we are able to impart the spiritual aspect of religion to a machine, because I believe that the spirit is the foundation of religion.” Attendants were captivated by the idea. “I was incredibly shocked to see that a robot could take over a funeral. It’s considered very difficult to carry out even for a human being.”
Pepper’s German Predecessor
Pepper’s new role is not without precedent: BlessU-2 is one robot priest which delivers blessings in five different languages, for the population of Wittenberg, Germany. The language can be selected via BlessU-2’s touchscreen chest, which also allows worshippers the choice between male and female voice tone. The robot raises its arms, flashes lights, recites a biblical verse and finishes with a brief blessing to the worshipper.