Robot Monk in China’s Buddhist Temple

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A new monk has joined services at a Buddhist temple on the outskirts of Beijing. He moves around the temple, chanting Buddhist mantras, and talks to anyone who is eager to engage him in a conversation. Although, visitors have to stoop real low to talk to him, because he is only two feet tall, and made of metal and plastic.

Named Xian'er, the robot monk, resembles a cartoon-like novice monk in yellow robes with a shaven head, holding a touch screen on his chest. Xian'er can hold a conversation by answering about 20 simple questions about Buddhism and daily life, listed on his screen, and perform seven types of motions on his wheels. Master Xianfan, Xian’er’s creator, said the robot monk was the perfect vessel for spreading the wisdom of Buddhism in China, through the fusion of science and Buddhism.

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“Science and Buddhism are not opposing nor contradicting, and can be combined and mutually compatible”, said Xianfan.

The little robot monk was developed as a joint project between a technology company and artificial intelligence experts from some of China's top universities. It was unveiled to the public in October. But Xian'er is not necessarily the social butterfly many believe him to be. He has toured several robotics and innovation fairs across China but rarely makes public appearances at Longquan temple. Xian'er spends most of his days “meditating” on a shelf in an office, even though curiosity about him has exploded on social media. Xian'er was inspired by Xianfan's 2013 cartoon creation of the same name. The temple has produced cartoon animations, published comic anthologies, and even merchandise featuring the cartoon monk. The temple is developing a new model of Xian'er, which it says will have a more diverse range of functions.

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via Joseph Campbell for Reuters. Photos by Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

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