In Japan, where funerals often require elaborate preparation and involve religious rites, honoring the deceased comes at a very steep price. It costs about 550,000 yen (~$5,030) just to hire the services of a Buddhist monk, whose duties include chanting sutras. But now families have a more economical option to stand in place of these religious men: a robe-donning robot named Pepper who’s been trained to recite prayers and scripture while tapping a little drum. It can even livestream ceremonies to loved ones unable to attend a funeral in person.
Plastics manufacturer Nissei Eco introduced Pepper last month at Tokyo’s annual Life Ending Industry Expo — Japan’s largest trade show for everything funeral-related — and intends to offer its services at a cost of 50,000 yen (~$460), according to Japan Times. It’s an incredibly niche and unusual position for the four-foot-tall bot, which was originally designed by SoftBank Robotics as the first humanoid robot to live with humans, and the first capable of perceiving and responding to our emotions. Other Peppers have found homes in hospitals, where they work as receptionists, and in banks, where they greet and assist patrons. As Hyperallergic’s Allison Meier experienced first-hand, this little android is quite capable of displaying empathy.
Nissei Eco started tinkering with Pepper a year ago. A company spokesperson told Japan Times that its repurposed bot is part of a larger effort to innovate the funeral industry, as customers increasingly seek alternatives to traditional rituals. The robo-monk may also serve as a substitute to human priests when they aren’t available. As Nissei’s executive advisor Michio Inamura explains in the video below, priests are increasingly seeking part-time work outside their temple duties as donations from families affiliated with temples are in decline.
“So we thought that Pepper could fill that role of worship,” he concludes. Buddhist monk Tetsugi Matsuo, however, questions whether the smiling machine can offer guidance that is spiritual at heart, rather than simply replicate the physical demands of these age-old duties. Pepper the Buddhist monk’s computerized voice, for instance, may not carry the emotion that some people may seek. And some will perhaps see the machine as an undignified presence at a service steeped in tradition. Pepper, however, has yet to administer its first official funeral, so we’ll have to wait and see if it manages to fill such esteemed roles while maintaining a room’s expected decorum.