Funerals for robots? By robots? It’s happening today in Japan.
Modern technology has made its mark on the funeral industry. Memorial videos and live streaming have become commonplace in funeral homes across the country, with more using media to enhance funeral services than ever. Websites also play a critical role in funeral home operations, with CFS websites integrating with answering services, management software, and more. Apps for smartphones have also had a major impact, connecting an on-the-go funeral director with their office at any time.
But what about funerals for technology? A Buddhist temple in suburban Tokyo has opened its doors to services…for robot dogs. The Sony AIBO robot dog was first released in 1999 and quickly became a beloved companion to families all over Japan. The robot is said to “build relationships” with their owner and uses touch sensors and a camera to respond to touch and faces. As Sony halted production in 2006 and stopped providing repair services in 2014, the last remaining AIBO dogs began to shut down.
Over 800 of these “deceased” robots have been brought to this Buddhist temple, where priests hold traditional funeral services for the dogs. Many are then sent to a repair company as “organ donors” for other damaged AIBO robots. One of the priests at the temple, Bungen Oi, told reporters that he felt “All things have a bit of a soul.” Whether or not this is the case, these services have had a tremendous impact on the owners of the AIBO dogs. Many wrote to the temple to thank them for honoring the life of their beloved companion. Even in the context of robots and technology, funerals are a critical step in helping people heal from loss.
This is not the only way robots have begun to integrate into funeral traditions in Japan. A robot named Pepper has been designed to fulfill the role of a Buddhist priest, programmed to perform rituals reserved for funeral services. This has drawn far more controversy than the AIBO funerals, leading many to question the morality of allowing a robot to deliver religious rites.
The company that designed Pepper does not foresee or intend the replacement of human officiants. Instead, they sought to test other uses for their creation, who was not designed specifically for the funeral industry. Even though Pepper can perform services at a much lower cost than an actual Buddhist monk, it has not had any notable impact on the Japanese funeral industry in the first year of its release.
Will this interest in robot funerals spread beyond Japan? It’s far too early to say for certain, but it looks unlikely. Although the case of the AIBO robot dogs was enough for Sony to re-release the AIBO in Japan, it’s certainly not enough to have made a significant effect on the funeral industry yet.