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Bonn Church Dialogue: Robots could be giving the blessing

Bonn Church Dialogue : Robots could be giving the blessing

In the church pavilion stands a robot with which the Protestant Forum wants to raise a provocative question: May a machine give a blessing to a human being? The 1.80 meter high robot "BlessU-2" addresses the visitors in seven languages and expresses selected Bible quotations.

Can a robot give a blessing? After all, humans already leave a lot to machines and algorithms, such as vacuuming, medical interventions or the control of cars. Why not a sacred gesture? This provocative question was posed by the Protestant Forum Bonn at the start of its annual project 2020 - and it quickly set up "BlessU-2" in the church pavilion at the Kreuzkirche.

The 1.80-meter robot, invented by media artist Alexander Wedekind-Klein from a discarded ATM for the 2017 World Exposition Reformation in Wittenberg, appeals to visitors in seven languages and gives them a selected Bible quotation depending on their concerns. "We consciously want to ask the question where we should draw a line in view of digitalization," emphasizes Pastor Martin Engels, who initiated the project together with Hella Blum, head of media studies at the Protestant Academy in the Rhineland.

"Via the robot, visitors here, at the interface between church and society, come into conversation with one another about their faith and the modernisations that are changing the world and thus also religion. We need this dialogue".

Church cannot escape the change of time

Even a venerable institution like the Church cannot escape the changes of time: Divine services are broadcast on the Internet, sermons and Bible texts are retrieved via a tablet and collections are collected in electronic bell bags. Here the robot is only the next possible step. "I perceive that there are people who are touched by the blessings, just as they feel addressed by a mass on television," says Engels. "Others see the action as a gag that they don't take seriously. And some get upset about it. We should all take them seriously.

So BlessU-2 serves attention, just as it creates the illusion of attention. "But what robots can't do is convey the warmth and security of a human contact," emphasizes Superintendent Eckart Wüster. "We have to find a way to deal with the new media, there is no question about that. But we must not forget what we want to be as a church and as a community. For me, communication plays a central role. Basically, it would also be conceivable that a robot would not only give the blessing, but also give a whole sermon, but I wouldn't like that."

The series of events "Man Remains in the Digital World" is intended to stimulate dialogue between theology and science. BlessU-2 serves only as a door opener: The robot can be seen in the church pavilion until December 6th.

Original text: Thomas Kölsch

Translation: Mareike Graepel