Culture

Press here to activate your robot priest

A robot in Germany is raising its metal arms above worshipers' heads, but human priests shouldn't worry about their jobs just yet.

"God bless and protect you."

EKHN video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

Forgive me robot, for I have sinned.

Meet BlessU-2, a robot priest that delivers blessings in five languages as it raises its arms and beams light from its hands.

A German church developed BlessU-2 as part of an exhibit marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, an upheaval in European Catholicism that started when theologian Martin Luther published his famous Ninety-Five Theses.

The robot's head features moving eyebrows and a digital mouth that can alternate between serious and smiling. Users press the touchscreen chest to choose the type of prayer they'd like (encouragement or renewal), as well as their preference for a male or female voice. BlessU-2 speaks in German, English, French, Spanish and Polish and even prints out its invocations.

If the notion of being blessed by a robot priest seems provocative, it's supposed to be. The Evangelical Church in Hesse and Nassau, which developed the robot with engineer and media artist Alexander Wiedekind-Klein, wants to spark discussion about the church in a society increasingly driven by technology. Who could forget when following the pope on Twitter could cut time in purgatory?

"The idea is to stimulate debate and thinking about the future of the church in a world full of electronic devices -- all that with a twinkle in our eye," the Evangelical Church's Volker Rahn said via email. "And that works. People who stop by are curious, amused and interested. They are really taken with it, and are very positive."

EKHN

The interactive BlessU-2 installation is part of a series of anniversary events in Wittenberg, the rural town in eastern Germany where Luther lived, preached and allegedly nailed his history-changing work to the door of the Castle Church.

BlessU-2 will minister to the public through September. In its first week, it's handed out more than 600 blessings, keeping it so busy it sometimes needs to be cooled by fan.

But while BlessU-2 may offer some view into the future of religion, Rahn says he doesn't expect robots to replace human priests.

"Worshipers needn't worry about clergy being replaced with machines," he said. "We don't want to robotize our church work, but see if we can bring a theological perspective to a machine and a world full of high-technology."

This isn't the first time robots and religion have met. Last year saw the arrival of a wisdom-dispensing robot monk called the Buddhabot. And in 2013, Isaac the humanoid robot helped light a public San Francisco menorah on the seventh night of Hanukkah.

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