By Michael Strelcheck
News Flash! A robot monk is now preaching at an ancient Buddhist temple in Japan. The “Android Kannon” is programmed to deliver sermons from the Heart Sutras at Kyoto’s Kodaiji temple. The mechanical humanoid is said to stand over six feet tall and has flesh-like silicon covering its face, hands, and shoulders and appears eerily lifelike. Strangely, temple priests ordered it from a local university at a bargain price of nearly one million dollars! I guess they got tired of doing the preaching themselves. “We want many people to come and see the robot and to think about the essence of Buddhism,” said Tensho Goto, a priest affiliated with the temple.
The description of this automated monk conjures up in me memories of those past mechanical “fortune tellers” found in the old coin operated machines at local County Fairs. You know, where there was a creepy puppet or robot of a Gypsy or Magician in a glass cage who would come to life when you dropped a nickel in the machine. Usually, the puppet would deal out a card that would magically pop out of a slot in front of the machine. The card, supposedly, would reveal your fortune – which always seemed to predict that something great was going to happen to you! As a kid, I remember being quite fascinated with them and imagine they are why I became interested in the metaphysical idea that a person could somehow know the future.
Although this inspired show produced by the Kodaiji temple sounds rather novel, and a little weird, for the presentation of sacred religious teachings, it may reveal a more alarming trend in modern society wherein technology is being used in unorthodox ways. Unfortunately, advancing technology isn’t always employed in such an entertaining or benign way as the “Android Kannon”!
Take for example the field of telecommunications. Often when you call a business or company you are greeted by a robotic voice that attempts to direct your inquiry to a mechanical system that presents limited choices of which you have to select one, which then takes you to another list. Truly frustrating! “All I want is to talk to another human being!”
But even worse, recently, phones have become “weaponized” making them agents of deception. There’s an acceleration of the dreaded “robocalls” and telemarketers invading people’s privacy, making claims that they’re responding to their request for information – which, of course, probably wasn’t made. I guess that’s how companies are getting around the government’s Do Not Call Registry. Individuals who use “number recognition systems” on their phones, which give the number calling, are also finding that those systems have been compromised. The field of telemarketing has grown so sophisticated that they can now create any number they want! And, even if that isn’t deceitful enough, companies can now employ voice technology that mimics business people you might know! According to a CNN article last fall, “a scammer could call you from what looks to be a familiar number and talk to you using a voice that sounds exactly like your bank teller’s, saying they’ve found suspicious activity on your account. You’re then tricked into ‘confirming’ your address, mother’s maiden name, card number and PIN number.” Yikes! What’s a person to do?
Mitch Albom’s recent humorous comments in the Detroit Free Press hit squarely on the frustration technology is creating and messing with our minds. “You’re on your way home. It’s Friday night. Your phone rings. You check the number. It looks vaguely familiar, but not completely, and you press “ignore” and congratulate yourself (believing you avoided a telemarketer).
The next day, your best friend calls. ‘Hey, you won’t believe this. Someone gave us four tickets to the Beyoncé concert last night. We tried calling you on Bill’s phone, but you didn’t answer. It was so great! Sorry you missed it.’
Somewhere Alexander Graham Bell is shaking his head and saying, ‘What happened?’ And then, his heavenly phone rings and a voice says, ‘This is the IRS, an arrest warrant has been issued in your name’ . . .”
Although technology and its rapid advancement have transformed our society, making it easier to do things and thus saving us time and effort, not all of its advances are constructive. Just because a new “app” comes out, or a new electronic mechanism is produced, doesn’t automatically mean that it should be assumed it’s good or safe! I want to be clear. It’s not necessarily the fault of the technology that something manifests falsely. It’s the fault of the developer or programmer who adapts the technology to their ends – that is the problem. Perhaps we, as a society, need to think more carefully about how new technological devices access our lives – and consider the possibility that some things aren’t always created for honorable reasons. Buyer beware!