Pepper the Robot is Programmed to Perform Buddhist Funeral Rites

Sunday, 27 August 2017 - 1:40PM
Technology
Robotics
Weird Science
Sunday, 27 August 2017 - 1:40PM
Pepper the Robot is Programmed to Perform Buddhist Funeral Rites
YouTube/NipponNewsNew
Last fall, it was exciting to watch Softbank's Pepper robot learn how to play with a ball-and-cup toy. And, well, Pepper's come quite a long way since then.

At the Life Ending Industry EXPO in Tokyo, a collection of various funeral-related products and perhaps the world's most morbid trade show, Pepper made a surprising appearance to offer services reciting chants for Buddhist funerals. Dressed in ceremonial garb, the robot presided over a fake, display funeral while beating a drum and reciting a number of pre-learned sutras and sermons in Japanese. 

The company Nissei Eco had the idea to offer up robots as an alternative to monks, writing Pepper's chanting software due to the robot's proficiency for memorizing phrases. See the footage below, and note how Pepper's voice was lowered from the cheerful default setting to something more somber:



While nobody has taken them up on this offer just yet, Japan does have an increasingly aging population, and Pepper could be useful in situations where a monk isn't available to conduct a funeral.

Like many other scenarios where a job becomes automated, the biggest incentive for using Pepper will be the price, as it's cheaper than hiring a flesh-and-blood human. Nissei Eco is pricing their funeral robots at 50,000 yen (about $450) per ceremony, while the price for a human priest is often 240,000 yen (about $2,200). 

On the down side, Pepper is only a good substitute if everyone in the funeral's attendance is comfortable with a robot performing sacred, spiritual tasks. Whether or not the general public will be open to automating religious ceremonies remains to be seen, but since robots and religion aren't typically combined in this way, it's hard to imagine people warming up to the idea so quickly. 

But if any robot could do it, Pepper's design is actually well-suited to the task - at least, more so than other robots. Designed by SoftBank in 2014, Pepper is able to perceive and accurately respond to emotions, and was conceived as a day-to-day companion.

As such, the robot is normally programmed to look and sound much friendlier than the funeral-mode version seen above. We'll just have to wait and see whether funeral robots catch on.

Outer Places

And if anyone was morbidly curious about what else the Life Ending Industry EXPO entails (it's often shortened to simply "ENDEX" because why wouldn't it be?), here's a collection of the very latest in Japanese funerary services:

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