It’s no secret that artificial intelligence (AI) and the technologies surrounding it are increasingly impacting our lives with each passing year. Now, SoftBank Robotics’ much-publicized humanoid robot, “Pepper,” may even impact the future of funeral services throughout the world.
Thanks in large part to software written and developed by Japanese company Nissei Eco, the robot—once delegated to working around the house, assisting at retail stores and even waiting tables—is now capable of performing the duties of a Buddhist priest. Its abilities were recently showcased in Tokyo at the Life Ending Industry Expo, where the robot proved able to chant sutras and hit a drum in accordance with ceremonial customs.
A Growing Need
But does a need exist for AI funeral presiders? In Japan, the answer may be, “Yes.” Due to a shortage of monetary support offered to Buddhist priests, many are forced to take on jobs outside of temple to meet basic living expenses each month. A shortage of available priests has created a void that the robotics sector could potentially fill, and Pepper may be the first example of such efforts.
Another concern is cost—typically the equivalent of $2,200 or more to hire a human priest for a Buddhist funeral in Japan. With Nissei Eco’s software, Pepper can preside over a funeral for around $400 all-told. This makes the technology an excellent fit for those who find themselves unable to deal with the high costs of traditional funerals, not to mention the equally high costs of burial in Japan.
The Human Element
Despite the fact that Pepper’s new career as a Buddhist priest stand-in could potentially serve a need and does seem to be backed by good intentions, it’s difficult to forecast just how well-received humanoid religious figures will be by the masses. The robot has yet to preside over an actual funeral, and reports from the Expo in Japan point to a jarring execution that is anything but funereal.
The fact is, AI in its current state is simply unable to replicate true human interaction and emotions—both key to the sensitive nature of performing end-of-life ceremonies. That said, the technology is advancing at a rapid rate and could foreseeably be integrated into the end-of-life process at some point. At the moment, however, it just seems to be a bit too early for the general public to adopt the concept of robot-led funerals.
Pepper may be a functional and useful helper around the house, but it will likely be some time before the robot’s career as a Buddhist priest or other form of religious leader breaks into the mainstream—if it ever does.