God and Robots

July 8, 2009 | 44 comments
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They’re coming. Even if you don’t own a robot vacuum cleaner or lawnmower, you’ve been dealing with robots for many years now without realizing it: ATMs, kiosks that vend DVDs, the scan-it-yourself devices at the grocery store that greet you with a friendly “Welcome, valued customer!” and conclude with a brisk “Your receipt is printing. Don’t forget to pick up your change!” How long before the Church starts using robots for some functions? Please, no snarky comments. This is a serious topic.

Yesterday, it hit me. I guess I crossed the line yesterday when it suddenly dawned on me, while feeding scanned product information to my friendly grocery store robot, that I now actually prefer the robot to the flesh-and-blood grocery store checker. For a long time, I resisted, knowing the store just uses the checker robots to reduce labor costs, with no particular concern for the customer. I admit it bothered me that the store was making me do much of the checkout work that paid store clerks (the human ones) once did. But I’m over all that now. I’m happy to interact with grocery store robot. Someday it will call me by name and remind me I forgot to buy sour cream.

Consumer services, of course, are not the biggest role robots play in our modern economy. Many factories are now largely automated. Robots probably built your car. Police use durable robots for disabling or detonating suspected bombs. I read P. W. Singer’s Wired for War last month. Wow. Unmanned drones fly military missions; reconnaissance drones provide recon info to troops; robo-troops are just around the corner. Killer robots are our future, but so are friendly robots. If we could divert some of that DOD robot money into developing better consumer robots, the world would be a better place, don’t you think?

Not a first adopter. The LDS Church is not generally a first adopter of new technology, but when a new technology is proven reliable and offers benefits, the Church moves decisively to adopt it. Think of the BYU sports dish now installed at every chapel, the fancy computer locks on most chapel entry doors, and of course LDS.org, a superb online resource. So yes, if your bank and your grocery store are using robots, the Church will too, probably sooner than you think. And if you like your ATM and your self-checker (“Welcome, valued customer!”), you will like your LDS robots. Here are some suggestions for the first official Mobots. Perhaps you can offer your own (serious) suggestions in the comments.

Robo-greeter. Don’t you just cringe when you hear stories of those needy souls who visit an LDS service and don’t have a single conversation during the entire visit? Every member and visitor should have at least one friendly interaction every Sunday. Enter Robo-greeter, a mobile robot stationed in each foyer to greet every person: “Welcome, valued member, it’s great to see you.” Robo-greeter can hand out programs and provide key building information that visitors always have (like where did they hide the bathrooms and where are priesthood opening exercises). Before long, you’d rather meet Robo-greeter in the foyer than Brother Jones.

Ward Clerk in a Box. I’m thinking it wouldn’t be hard to automate or robotize most clerk functions into a single unit that can just be shipped out to each ward. This would be a real blessing for isolated branches that don’t have the personnel to staff a full clerking team. You might even roll in the executive secretary, too.

Imagine the bishop dropping in to see Robo-clerk on Sunday morning. “Welcome, valiant bishop. I am printing out six new membership records downloaded since last Sunday. At 6:00 a.m. this morning, I texted your appointments for the day to your PDA. Don’t forget the musical number in sacrament meeting today.” So the bishop gets high-quality clerk services 24/7. Embarrassing human errors (names spelled wrong, errors made in recording contributions) will be eliminated. Everyone is happier. This is a win-win robot.

Elder Kiosk. If you can get DVDs and money from a kiosk, why not religion? Put Elder Kiosk in every shopping mall and airport. “Welcome, valued citizen. What would you like to know about the LDS Church?” This way interested people can get reliable information about the LDS Church rather than the false or misleading information they presently get from neighbors or co-workers. And the can get it anonymously, from a friendly, patient proselyting robot rather than a live person who keeps asking for their name and contact information.

This robot should be stationary — it wouldn’t do to have Elder Kiosk following people down the mall. Elder Kiosk can also issue free LDS DVDs to individuals who engage in meaningful conversation for at least sixty seconds. Given the garbage on TV these days, family-friendly LDS DVDs from Elder Kiosk (updated monthly with a new DVD) might be a real draw. Did I mention that magic marketing word … free? In addition, Elder Kiosk would be especially valuable in high-crime neighborhoods or areas of civil strife where live missionaries are not allowed or are withdrawn. In some countries, the entire LDS missionary effort might be on the capable shoulders of Elder Kiosk. And Sister Kiosk.

Bishopric Droid. I know there is resistance to using robots in management, but once Robo-greeter and Robo-clerk have proven themselves, I think we’ll be ready for Bishopric Droid. He could simply replace the existing second counselor, or he could fill a new position in the bishopric. Bishopric Droid will be particularly good at collecting financial contributions — no more grey envelopes misplaced or forgotten by well-intentioned but fallible human counselors. I suggest adding a currency slot where members could insert bills directly into Bishopric Droid and receive an instant tithing receipt: “Thank you for your contribution, valued member. Your tithing receipt is printing below.” And imagine the thrill your six-year-old will get dropping her thirty-five cents into Bishopric Droid’s coin slot, then getting encouragement and a personalized thank-you in the droid’s confident but friendly voice.

As bold as it may sound, I think Bishopric Droid could also take over time-consuming temple recommend interviews and actually do a better job. There are persistent anecdotal reports of interviewers who depart from the list of approved questions (no, who you voted for in the last presidential election is not supposed to be a question). Not Bishopric Droid. He will stick to the script. For truth detetion, add a simple hand-pad or arm cuff to allow Bishopric Droid to monitor heart rate, blood pressure, and galvanic skin resistance during the interview. Those troubled few whose biometrics indicate dissimulation can be tagged for follow-up by a live local leader. And once Correlation figures out the advantages of having a dynamically reprogrammable droid in every bishopric, I think there will be powerful support for this robot in higher councils.

So before long, you will have an entirely different, but still edifying, Sunday experience. As with all new technologies, we can hardly even guess at this point the creative uses to which LDS robots will be put.

44 Responses to God and Robots

  1. Ian Cook on July 8, 2009 at 11:30 am

    This is great! I think that the first place to use these new droids is for high counsel speakers. They are bound to be more interesting and have more personality than many a high counsel speaker I’ve heard…

  2. bjohnson on July 8, 2009 at 11:39 am

    Reminds me of an old Calvin Grondahl cartoon where two missionaries are walking along a sidewalk and one smacks his head against a low-hanging branch. The impact knocks his head loose, revealing obvious mechanical and electronic parts. The other missionary turns to him and exclaims, “Elder, I had no idea I was participating in a new top-secret church pilot program!”

  3. Ziff on July 8, 2009 at 11:46 am

    Hilarious, Dave! How about Source Finder Bot? It would sit in the back of Sacrament Meeting, Gospel Doctrine, Relief Society, and Elders Quorum. When a speaker, teacher, or comment-maker told a story, it would look the story up and display the source, e.g., “Thomas S. Monson, 1987 (see also 1995, 2004, 2008)”. If an apocryphal story were told, it would say “Source unknown.” If the “Captains and Generals in the War in Heaven” story were told, it would mace the speaker.

  4. Owen on July 8, 2009 at 11:47 am

    I am just praying for the day when we can pay tithing by wire transfer in the US like they do in Scandinavia.

  5. L-d Sus on July 8, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    I wonder what this guy would do to robo-bishop.

  6. Ardis Parshall on July 8, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    Welcome, Brother Blogger. Please program me with a list of preferred comments and I shall unfailingly oblige.

    /s/ Robo-Reader

  7. NoCoolName_Tom on July 8, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    Owen,
    I pay my tithing by BillPay through my bank. To be honest I’m not all that together on financial stuff – is that similar to a wire transfer?

  8. Bro. Jones on July 8, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    “Elder Kiosk, in a church so focused on family, why do callings take up so much time?”

    [Elder Kiosk explodes]

    I kid, I kid.

  9. Ziff on July 8, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    Good point, Ardis! For all anyone knows who hasn’t met me in real life, I am a robot, particularly given the homogeneity of my comments. ;)

    There’s nothing to see here. Move along.

  10. Mark D. on July 8, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    Paying your tithing via BillPay will result in a check being printed and mailed to the Bishop of your ward. It doesn’t reduce the work required to process that donation at all.

    The Church could, in principle, establish a direct connection to the payment processors so that printed checks do not get issued and sent to the local ward, but there are serious logistical problems, and the most practical one is the Church financial department would have no idea how to allocate a contribution among tithing, fast offerings, ward missionary fund, and so on.

    As a consequence the most likely way the Church may someday accept electronic contributions would be through a Church operated web site where you put in all that information and then transfer the total via electronic check (ACH transfer) from your checking account. Debit cards need not apply – the percentage fees are outrageous. I don’t think the Church would be inclined to pay 1-2% of all contributions to the payment processors. ACH transactions on the other hand are fixed ~0.25 cent fee, or thereabouts.

  11. NoCoolName_Tom on July 8, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    10 – I pay it to Salt Lake City, not my local bishop. Only the first check is physical – the rest have all been electronically transferred based off of the first check. I receive a PDF statement each month which seems to be automatically generated and sent. I am not aware if any of this information is relayed to the local ward. In the end, from my perspective paying through bill pay certainly does reduce the word required to process that donation.

  12. NoCoolName_Tom on July 8, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    Er, work, not word.

  13. Mark D. on July 8, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    From the payers perspective, all “BillPay” transactions usually appear to be electronic. Whether the payee receives a physical check or a electronic transfer depends on whether they are set up to do the latter. If the Church is, that is a major advance. Otherwise, they would need headquarters based personnel to process all the checks they receive in the mail.

    The question I have, is if you do send such a payment, how do they know who the donor is? Regular ward donations get associated with membership records, which is important for year end statements and tithing status reporting. So if you send a check with just your name and address (no membership number) that would seem to require manual intervention. Or do you put your membership number on your electronic payments?

    The second question is how do they know that you want to make a tithing contribution or a fast offering contribution, and in particular split the amount between multiple categories? The payment systems I am aware of cannot send information with regard to the latter, except perhaps in a memo field.

  14. Steve Evans on July 8, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    Excellent post, Dave.

  15. Lincoln Cannon on July 8, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    Will these robots have spirits? Are we robots?

  16. Mark D. on July 8, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    I checked and LDS Philanthropies has such a website. They even accept credit cards. They do not appear to accept tithing, fast offering, and ward missionary fund contributions however:

    http://www.ldsphilanthropies.org/

    If there are instructions somewhere for making tithing contributions directly to the Church financial department via electronic funds transfer or other bill payment services, I would very much like to hear about it.

    It is like the robot, except rack mounted in a data center somewhere, with the potential to make the job of ward financial clerks (and members of bishoprics) much less tedious.

  17. Mark D. on July 8, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    More fun information:

    https://tech.lds.org/wiki/index.php/Electronic_Donations

    Apparently, you can make electronic tithing donations, and no, they do not currently get reported back to your local unit. They solve the categorization problem by using different payees for different donation types. There is a form you fill out that includes your membership record number, and other information so you receive an official receipt for tax purposes at the end of the year. I am impressed.

  18. kevinf's Avatar on July 8, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    Ian, # 1, I was recently released from my calling on the high council for a ward calling, and had to undergo a lengthy and tedious software upgrade, and it took 3 reloads, multiple patches from Windows Update, and some tweaking before Ward HP GL 2.15 began to function properly. I am looking forward to the Linux version, but my son says hold out for the MAC OS version. Less subject to viruses, he says, and I have been coughing a bit of late, along with some knee joint hydraulic issues.

  19. NoCoolName_Tom on July 8, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    17,
    Yeah, that’s how I set it up. It’s worked well so far (since February).

  20. Eric Russell on July 8, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    My only request is that the church make MLS an online program.

  21. P.S. on July 8, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    How about Robo Pianist and Robo Organist?

    Actually, the Church is already using these – any unit can purchase an electronic piano with 150 pre-loaded, self-playing hymns. If your building gets a new electronic organ for the chapel, two of the approved models have a built-in hymn player with the same 150 pre-loaded, self-playing hymns. Weird, but true!

  22. SteveP on July 8, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    Great post. And the day robots are used is coming!. And don’t forget the challenges of whenrobots need to be baptized.

  23. Melissa on July 8, 2009 at 4:47 pm

    I’m imagining a Primary music robot that both plays the music (like the electronic pianos referenced in #21) and also flashes song lyrics and images across her stomach like a karaoke machine (obviating the need for paper-based visual aides).

  24. Dave on July 8, 2009 at 5:08 pm

    Thanks for the link to your BCC post, Steve. Had I known, I would have linked it in the post … I was so sure I had a topic that no one had posted on before.

  25. Andrew S on July 8, 2009 at 5:19 pm

    In the same way you can’t text message faith (or, in older analogies from the lesson manuals, you can’t have a “robot” missionary), some functions just can’t be taken over by robots. A robot greeter is one of these.

  26. comet on July 8, 2009 at 6:50 pm

    In Japan tithes and offerings are paid through a postal account, not directly handled by the bishopric (although the bishopric apparently has access of some kind, considering tithing settlements at the end of the year). Japan may lead the way on this. I’m looking forward to the ubiquity of robots challenging our human/divine-centric theology in the next generation.

  27. JD on July 8, 2009 at 6:54 pm

    I think it’ll be a LOOOONG time before we have robots pass the Sacrament, lol, I mean, the Church Office Building still has elevator operators, I never knew what an elevator operator was until I went to Salt Lake.

  28. Ardis E. Parshall on July 8, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    JD, the only “elevator operators” are hosts/hostesses associated with taking hoards of tourists to the observation deck, as a matter of efficiency (read: keeping all those clever, clever visitors from punching every button in the elevator bank). Otherwise, there are no elevator operators.

  29. Ken on July 8, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    “Ward Clerk in a Box. I’m thinking it wouldn’t be hard to automate or robotize most clerk functions into a single unit that can just be shipped out to each ward.”

    Oh, mannn!!! I’m already MOSTLY useless … now, ya wanna make me COMPLETELY useless!!! Thanks a LOT!!!

  30. Amy S on July 8, 2009 at 11:45 pm

    how bout we get a droid to clean the buildings for us, make sure there’s toilet paper in the stall, and guard against other wards stealing your supplies.

    and what about a primary substitute bot? Always on stand-by whenever a teacher doesn’t show up!

  31. James on July 9, 2009 at 3:15 am

    There are any number of administrative tasks in the church that could be automated. Some of them like electronic payment of tithing are conceptually not that hard. An experienced systems architect could work up the high level design in a day or so. Funds transfer, linkage to a member record number, and downloading of the donation record to the local ward copy of MLS are conceptually easy even though successful coding may be another matter. But, most of the ideas for automation are not going to happen for a very simple reason. Automating that task would eliminate an opportunity for a member to serve.

    This has happened before. About 25 or so years ago the Temples department installed a sophisticated data management system in the temples. Recommends were kept in a mag stripe sleeve that you swiped at various checkpoints. After a couple of years, the system was decommissioned and the hardware physically removed from the buildings because the system drastically reduced the need for temple workers. Given the choice between an automated system and opportunities for members of the church to give service, I think that the Church will always choose the service opportunity.

  32. Steve Hardy on July 9, 2009 at 9:52 am

    Wait a minute! That’s why the computerized system was removed? Because it actually reduced the need for temple workers? Isn’t that one of the points of automization? To reduce work-load? What would be wrong with giving those temple workers a more meaningful and significant assignment, or releasing them and telling them to spend their four hour shifts in community service?

  33. Mark D. on July 9, 2009 at 10:17 am

    I always thought the mag stripe system was removed because is was too intrusive, distracting, and collected more information than was thought to be necessary.

  34. Brian Cooper on July 9, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    In addition to the aforementioned reasons, the mag stripe system was not as reliable as needed, and it confused patrons. After a while, they had to have a temple worker stationed by the machine to help patrons swipe their cards, so it wasn’t much of a savings in labor.

  35. Glenn Smith on July 9, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    Our Canadian banking system permits us to pay many bills from a home computer. Different from the US BillPay, a check is not sent. Rather, an electronic transfer is made directly to the recipient’s bank account. It would be convenient to pay tithing that way. However, there is much in favor of physically presenting the tithing to the bishop. It’s not so much the money as it is the process of handing over to the Lord even the widow’s mite. I’m not expressing this point very well – it just seems to be more spiritual (right word???) to actually pay the tithing money rather than click the pay button. I guess it’s the connection with the Lord via the Bishop that matters more.

  36. Mark N. on July 9, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    Seems to me that given the apparent shortage of ward and/or stake organists and other general keyboard instrument players, MIDI-capable organs are probably the closest thing in most buildings right now that could be seen as being somewhat robotic and could conceivably replace human beings, freeing them up for much more important duties like watching over the Primary Nursery.

    A MIDI organist would also eliminate the position of ward chorister, since the organist would only be paying attention to the MIDI clock so far as determining the tempo would go. It would still be helpful for the ward to have some kind of visual cues as to the speed of the music, but I’m sure that could be easily automated in some way.

  37. anon on July 10, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    I pay my tithing and donations automatically through my bank by check to the bishop’s house. But I guess that there’s a clerk that probably fills out the slip for me. His problem, not mine.

  38. Bookslinger on July 10, 2009 at 7:35 pm

    Anon at 2:42pm. Last time I helped out with counting the donations (back when I was a ward exec-sec, and was a backup-backup), if money came in without a slip, it was up to the Bishop to allocate it. Back then, when there was a “Ward Budget” item, my bishop had me put one slip-less check from an inactive member into that category. The only notation in the memo field of the check was “dues.”

  39. Bookslinger on July 10, 2009 at 7:37 pm

    Mark N.: one local chapel in Indianapolis has the hymns (or most of them) programmed into an electronic organ in the RS room. It has default settings, but you can change the tempo, key/pitch, number of verses, and tell it to play the intro.

  40. anon on July 10, 2009 at 8:49 pm

    Maybe I’ll get a robot that replaces me in meetings. I’ll have to made sure it has the EQ lesson manual and scriptures to read out loud. I wonder if I can program it to sleep when the Dry Council speakers rambles on?

  41. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 14, 2009 at 7:35 pm

    I have always thought that the description of God in the Nicene Creed as “without body, parts, or passions” and as “pure thought” sounded a lot like an Artificial Intelligence. There is a famous science fiction story “Good News from the Vatican” about the election of a robot pope. If inafallibility is the standard of performance, an artificial intelligence would seem to fit the bill much more nicely than a typical fallible human. For that matter, the vision of eternity that many Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, currently embrace seems to have no role for the physical body and could be fulfilled (or simulated) in software on a very large and fast supercomputer, on which all of the souls of saved humanity are simply uploaded.

    In contrast, the fundamental LDS doctrine that we must experience opposing ends of the spectrum of experience militates against making perfect robots our ideals of behavior. As Eugene England observed in his essay “The Church is as True as the Gospel”, it is our striving together in the midst of our mutual imperfections which is the “refiner’s fire” that enables us to perfect ourselves, to become like Christ.

  42. Mark D. on July 14, 2009 at 11:34 pm

    I look at the semi-classical sense of a God without body, parts, or passions as essentially the same as considering God to be the same as “goodness”, and “love”, and “power” and every other quasi-static perfection.

  43. Dennis on July 15, 2009 at 1:18 am

    Raymond (41),

    The OP and the comments here are probably largely in jest, but I’m very glad you made your point. In other words, joking notwithstanding, I found myself a little uncomfortable about this post and its ensuing comments, especially regarding what can be interpreted as wanting to flee the messiness (and imperfection) of human-human relations. Robots might be more “efficient” in some ways, but it seems “efficiency” is not really part of the plan of salvation (though perhaps someone else’s plan?)

    So, again, joking notwithstanding, I want to emphasize that there are many reasons to be concerned about technological takeovers. Even in the grocery store aisle, I would add.

  44. queuno on July 15, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    Ward Clerk in a Box. I’m thinking it wouldn’t be hard to automate or robotize most clerk functions into a single unit that can just be shipped out to each ward. This would be a real blessing for isolated branches that don’t have the personnel to staff a full clerking team. You might even roll in the executive secretary, too.

    *shakes head*

    Maybe, if the people who design and maintain MLS would ever get out of their bubbles and observe *real* wards in action, we might get an MLS could be run by a robot. As it is, the robot would explode from trying to navigate a ward that doesn’t fit into MLS.

    (at least MLS is better than the ward directories on the Local Unit Websites…)