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.