From Experiential to Existential Questions

An Interdisciplinary View on Social Robots in Religious Settings

In: Artificial Intelligence

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Robots are entering all sorts of social spaces including areas such as religion and spirituality. Social robots in particular do not only function as a new medium for communication but are perceived as autonomous social counterparts. Using social robots in religious settings raises questions that cross disciplinary boundaries. Questions from human-robot interaction (HRI) ask about how to design the robot user experience. Theological questions touch existential aspects and ask whether robots can obtain spiritual competence and how they might fundamentally change previously unautomated religious practice. So far, work done by HRI researchers and theologians remains largely siloed within both communities. In this work, we attempt to interweave disciplinary views on social robotics in religious communication on the example of the blessing robot BlessU-2. We discuss a discursive design study in which the robot expressed Protestant blessings to thousands of visitors of a public exhibition. More than 2,000 people wrote comments on their encounters with the robot. From these comments we analyzed both experiential aspects such as the acceptability and design features of this social robot as well as how the participants reflected on important existential questions such as the origin of a blessing. We conclude that a probing approach and the subsequent collaborative analysis of empirical data was fruitful for both Protestant Theology and HRI disciplines. Central challenges of social robots could be addressed more holistically from the perspective of individual user experience up to the theological and ethical reflection of individual and social existential needs.

Artificial Intelligence

Reflections in Philosophy, Theology, and the Social Sciences