Robot monk with answers to life

Master Xian Fan with Xian'er, a 60cm-tall, advice- dispensing robot monk, in Longquan Temple on the outskirts of Beijing.
Master Xian Fan with Xian'er, a 60cm-tall, advice- dispensing robot monk, in Longquan Temple on the outskirts of Beijing.PHOTO: REUTERS

A mix of artificial intelligence and spirituality, Xian'er draws curious visitors to a temple north-west of Beijing

BEIJING • Po, the wisdom-seeking hero of the Kung Fu Panda films, might recognise this temple in China where the world's first robot monk dwells.

For Po's Jade Palace, there is Longquan (Dragon Spring) Temple, a place of Buddhist worship in the mountains north-west of Beijing, where gnarled ginkgo and cypress trees tower over red-walled buildings underneath rocky Phoenix Ridge.

For his Hall of Warriors, there is the Comic Centre deep inside the temple, at the end of winding stone paths and steps, past a flower- shaped audio device that crackles sutras.

As for Po himself, there is Xian'er, the 60cm-tall, advice-dispensing robot whose full title is Worthy Stupid Robot Monk. (In the Beijing dialect, "er" or "stupid" is a term of affection.) Not so much Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016), perhaps, as Robot Monk 1.

A child-like creature in an orange Buddhist robe, Xian'er is an object of fascination in China amid an increasingly urgent pursuit of spirituality and, more recently, artificial intelligence.

But Xian Fan, head of the Comic Centre, told National Business Daily that the temple did not plan to commercialise the robot and that its development was for "the public welfare". And the monks do not seem to be planning a franchise.

There is only one robot monk for now, Xian told Beijing News, adding: "We're not doing this for commerce, but just because we want to use more modern ways to spread Buddhist teachings."

The robot was created last year by the temple in collaboration with about a dozen Chinese technology, culture and investment companies, according to Chinese news reports.

But the character of Xian'er was first designed by artists at the Comic Centre for a 2014 Buddhist comic-book series, whose first title was Troubles Are Self-Made.

The series has sold well in Chinese bookstores and an English-language edition is due out soon.

As a robot, Xian'er has expanded his repertoire. He has a touch pad on his chest that allows him to respond to supplicants' questions and statements, such as "Who are your parents?", "I'm not happy", and "What is the meaning of life?"

On a recent morning, employees at the Comic Centre declined to let visitors communicate directly with Xian'er, saying he was - literally - recharging in order to meet a delegation of government officials from Beijing later in the day.

No matter. There was always Weixin, or WeChat, where Xian'er maintains an account.

Clearly no sentimentalist, his answers to the above queries were: "That's ridiculous, how can robots have parents?", "If you're not happy, what can anyone else do about it?" and "My master says the meaning of life is to help more people finally leave behind bitterness and gain happiness."

Po might have approved.

Many visitors to Longquan Temple last Wednesday, however, expressed doubt as to whether Xian'er could really help people with their problems, though some said they expected technology to advance so quickly that future generations of robot monks might.

A second, smarter Xian'er is already in development, a centre employee said.

"I haven't seen it, but I've heard of it," Madam Zhang Ping, a middle- aged woman who was visiting the temple, said of the robot monk.

"It relies on permutations and combinations of words to solve problems, but whether it can really deal with deep personal issues, I'm not sure," she said.

"Everyone is different. For some, those may be about family, for others, about work. But look at how fast artificial intelligence is progressing. In 20 years, I think it's completely possible it will be able to."

Another templegoer disagreed.

"I don't think it's possible for the intelligence of a robot to be advanced enough to understand human feelings," said Mr Wang Yiren, 23, a Buddhist and volunteer at the temple.

"The robot doesn't really live up to my expectations. But I've seen robots in other parts of the world that can communicate with human beings and that's pretty amazing."

Madam He Haikun, 33, a visitor, said: "If you have no one to talk to, maybe it would help to talk to a robot."

Here are some other answers provided by Xian'er, via WeChat:

What is love?

Love is your own obsessions not being satisfied, the clashing of other people's troubles with yours.

I don't want to work.

If you don't want to starve and have an okay job, work hard.

I want to die.

Don't assume you're the most pathetic person in the world.

Who is Xi Jinping (the president of China)?

A robot doesn't know any people.

Could there be another Cultural Revolution?

Wait, I will ask my master.

Po would have been envious of Xian'er for being able to pass a difficult question on to his master, having been required in Kung Fu Panda 3 to solve his community's problems himself.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2016, with the headline 'Robot monk with answers to life'. Print Edition | Subscribe