Po, the wisdom-seeking hero of the Kung Fu Panda films, might recognise this temple in China where the world’s first robot monk dwells. For Po’s Jade Palace, there is Longquan (Dragon Spring) Temple, a place of Buddhist worship in the mountains northwest of Beijing, where gnarled gingko and cypress trees tower over red-walled buildings underneath rocky Phoenix Ridge.
For his Hall of Warriors, there is the Comic Center deep inside the temple, at the end of winding stone paths and steps, past a flower-shaped audio device that crackles sutras.
As for Po himself, there is Xian’er, the two-foot-tall, advice-dispensing robot whose full title is Worthy Stupid Robot Monk. (In the Beijing dialect, “er,” or “stupid,” is a term of affection.) Not so much Kung Fu Panda 3, perhaps, as “Robot Monk 1.”
A childlike creature in an orange Buddhist robe, Xian’er is an object of fascination in China amid an increasingly urgent pursuit of spirituality and, more recently, artificial intelligence. But Xian Fan, the head of the Comic Center, told National Business Daily that the temple did not plan to commercialise the robot and that its development was for “the public welfare”.
And the monks do not seem to be planning a franchise. There is only one robot monk for now, Xian Fan told Beijing News, adding, “We’re not doing this for commerce, but just because we want to use more modern ways to spread Buddhist teachings.”
The robot was created last year by the temple in collaboration with about a dozen Chinese technology, culture and investment companies, according to Chinese news reports. But the character of Xian’er was first designed by artists at the Comic Center for a 2014 Buddhist comic book series, whose first title was Troubles Are Self-Made. The series has sold well in Chinese bookstores, and an English-language edition is due out soon.
As a robot, Xian’er has expanded his repertoire. He has a touch pad on his chest that allows him to respond to supplicants’ questions and statements, such as: “Who are your parents?” “I’m not happy” and “What is the meaning of life?”
On Wednesday morning, employees at the Comic Center declined to let visitors communicate directly with Xian’er, saying he was – literally – recharging in order to meet a delegation of government officials from Beijing later in the day. They would not say who the officials were or give their own names, saying they were not authorised to speak to the news media.
No matter. There was always Weixin, or WeChat, where Xian’er maintains an account.
Clearly no sentimentalist, his answers to the above queries were:
“That’s ridiculous, how can robots have parents?”
“If you’re not happy, what can anyone else do about it?”
“My master says the meaning of life is to help more people finally leave behind bitterness and gain happiness.” Po might have approved.
Many visitors to Longquan Temple on Wednesday, however, expressed doubt as to whether Xian’er could really help people with their problems, though some said they expected technology to advance so quickly that future generations of robot monks might. A second, smarter Xian’er is already in development, a centre employee said. Po would have been envious of Xian’er for being able to pass a difficult question on to his master, having been required in Kung Fu Panda 3 to solve his community’s problems himself.
The robotics companies Canbot and Turing Robotic Industries, among the companies cited in Chinese news reports as working with the temple to produce Xian’er, agreed to answer questions about the project but had not responded as of Wednesday evening. At Interjoy, another company listed as one of the designers, and others, the phone rang unanswered.