Buddhism may be one of the oldest religions in the world, but that hasn't deterred a Buddhist temple on the outskirts of Beijing from embracing technology in a unique and adorable way to attract new followers. Meet Xian'er, the chubby little robot monk developed by Longquan temple to spread the wisdom of Buddhism in China in an interesting fusion of science and tradition.
The 2-foot tall Buddha-bot resembles a cartoon-like novice monk, donning traditional yellow robes and a shaven head, and holds a touch screen on his chest. In addition to chanting Buddhist mantras and moving via voice command, the little monk can hold a conversation by answering 20 simple questions about Buddhism and its lifestyle listed on the screen. It can also perform seven types of motions on its wheels.
"Science and Buddhism are not opposing nor contradicting, and can be combined and mutually compatible," Master Xianfan, Xian'er's creator and director of the animation center of Longquan Temple, told Reuters.
In an effort to "highlight and develop Buddhism's connection with contemporary culture through new media", the temple has also produced cartoon animations, comic anthologies and merchandise. The monk-bot was inspired by Xianfan's 2013 cartoon creation of the same name.
Unveiled to the public in October, Xian'er was developed as a joint project between a technology company and artificial intelligence (AI) experts from some of the top universities in China. Although it has made its way through several robotics and innovation fairs across the country, the bot rarely makes appearances at the temple. Instead, he usually spends most of his time "meditating on a shelf" in an office.
Although freedom of religion is included in China's Constitution and the ruling Communist party says it protects this right, it does keep a tight rein on religious activities. According to the Pew Research Center, China had a Buddhist population of 244 million living within its borders in 2010 - about 20% of the world's Buddhist population. This figure, however, is expected to decline to 14% by 2050.
Still, Xianfan says the religion "fills a gap" for people in today's fast-paced, constantly changing, smartphone-saturated world.
"Buddhism is something that attaches much importance to inner heart, and pays attention to the individual's spiritual world," Xianfan said. "It is a kind of elevated culture. Speaking from this perspective, I think it can satisfy the needs of many people."
The mini monk has become a hit on social media with more than 300,000 followers on Weibo, a Chinese micro-blogging site, with many fans looking to buy the bot. However, Master Xianfan says the robot is not for sale.
"What we do is not for commercial gain," Xianfan said. "We are trying to communicate Buddhist doctrine in a modern way." The temple is currently developing a new model of Xian'er which they say will have a more diverse range of functions.
China has proven to be a particularly exciting ground for robotics development and adoption in recent years. On 15 April, a Chinese tycoon was seen shopping in a luxury mall with eight humanoid robot maids in Guangzhou. Meanwhile, a few restaurants in Guangzhou were forced to fire its robot staff for their utter incompetence.