$16,000 robot bridges religion and technology at seminary

Published 13 February 2014  |  

The new guest of honour at the Southern Evangelical Seminary in Matthews, North Carolina is neither southern nor particularly evangelical. Not only is he not a Christian, he isn't even human, he's French.

He also has plastic outer skin, stands only 1ft 11" tall, and cost $16,000 on a one time basis.

Nao, pronounced 'now', is a robot made by the Parisian based company, Aldebaran Robotics.

The seminary purchased one as a learning tool for examining questions on the intersections between religion and technology, and the ethical considerations around using such technology in everyday life.

The robot has 25 operational degrees of freedom that it can move in, making it highly adaptive.

It's also equipped with a broad range of sensors including two cameras, four microphones, a sonar rangefinder, two infrared emitters and receivers, nine tactile sensors, eight pressure sensors, and one inertia board to detect acceleration.

Versions of it have in the past played football, performed synchronised dances, and even stand-up comedy routines.

Therapeutically, the robot has been used to help in the therapy of children with higher level forms of autism, as it is found they relate better to the childlike and highly expressive face.

The seminary will use the robot to explore questions like whether robots should do our jobs, care for the sick in hospital, and what benefits they might have in companies.

Students will also consider whether they violate human ethics and what problems they might cause.

Dr Kevin Staley, the SES's Associate Professor of theology will be heading the research involving Nao. Speaking to New Scientist, he said: "We're approaching a point where it's possible that a robot would become an accepted substitute for a human person in a number of ways."

"There's the question of marrying robots. There will be another significant market for robots when it comes to sex," he said.

"That Jesus adopted human form is extremely significant, from a Christian perspective, on the value of humans as a holistic being that's physical and spiritual."

The seminary has launched a competition to find an apt name for the Nao robot.

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