'Terminator' Android Preaches Buddhist Wisdom at Ancient Japanese Temple

Cyber army of robots.
Robot overlords? (Image credit: Shutterstock)

A robot is preaching Buddhist wisdom to worshippers at a temple in Japan — but some visitors think it looks like "Frankenstein's monster."

The humanoid robot, or android, started reciting Buddhist writings to worshippers at the 400-year-old Kodai-ji temple in Kyoto earlier this year. 

It combines a robotic body of moving metal parts — looking a bit like the T-800 in the movie "Terminator" — with a face, hands and shoulders of flexible silicone. The android is meant to represent Kannon: a bodhisattva, or archetypical Buddhist deity, who embodies mercy.

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The human monks at the temple say the robot bodhisattva will grow ever more "wise." 

"This robot will never die, it will just keep updating itself and evolving," head monk Tensho Goto told AFP. "That's the beauty of a robot. It can store knowledge forever and limitlessly."

The temple robot recites passages from the Heart Sutra, one of Buddhism's most well-known scriptures. "You cling to a sense of selfish ego," it preaches to worshippers. "Worldly desires are nothing other than a mind lost at sea."

The robotic Kannon has cost almost $1 million to develop, in a project undertaken by the temple and Hiroshi Ishiguro, a robotics professor at Osaka University.

The machinery that moves its head and arms is plainly visible, but its silicone face looks remarkably life-like — right down to its blinking eyes.

"Obviously a machine doesn't have a soul," Goto told AFP. "But Buddhist faith isn't about believing in God. It's about following Buddha's path, so it doesn't matter whether it is represented by a machine, a scrap of iron or a tree."

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Japanese visitors have responded well to the android, but some Western visitors have been upset by it.

"It could be the influence of the Bible, but Westerners have compared it to Frankenstein's monster," he said. "Japanese people don't possess any prejudices against robots. We were brought up on comics where robots are our friends."

Japanese Buddhism seems to be especially welcoming to robots: Since 2017, a robot named Pepper has been programmed to read scriptures, chant prayers and beat drums for a Buddhist funeral ceremony, as a low-cost alternative to hiring a monk to do the task.

Goto hopes the robot bodhisattva will appeal to younger worshippers in a way that traditional monks cannot.

"We want people to see the robot and think about the essence of Buddhism," he said. "This robot teaches us ways to overcome pain … It is here to save anyone who seeks help."

Original article on Live Science.

Live Science Contributor

Tom Metcalfe is a freelance journalist and regular Live Science contributor who is based in London in the United Kingdom. Tom writes mainly about science, space, archaeology, the Earth and the oceans. He has also written for the BBC, NBC News, National Geographic, Scientific American, Air & Space, and many others.