Blessing Robot BlessU2: A Discursive Design Study to Understand the Implications of Social Robots in Religious Contexts

Abstract

As robots are continuing to enter social spaces such as religion and spirituality, the timing is right to determine desirable scenarios and design factors appropriate for the deployment of technology in these contexts. We present two studies that empirically investigate the user experience, acceptability and design features of social robots on the example of a Protestant blessing ritual. In the first discursive design study, blessing robot BlessU2 interacted with more than 10,000 visitors of a public exhibition. We analysed the written comments left by 1923 visitors to understand more about the implications of robotics in religious practice. Overall, most comments were positive (51%), many neutral (29%) and some negative (20%). Four preferable scenarios for religious robots were derived: to demonstrate human creativity, to increase the reach of religious institutions and personnel, to offer service when there is no alternative, and to enhance service with unique robot capabilities. In a second study, we varied the appearance, behaviour, and functionality of the blessing robot, but found virtually no differences in quantitative measures on emotions and users’ perceptions of the robots. The qualitative interview data, however, revealed strong preferences towards a specific set of characteristics. These are discussed in the light of previous guidelines for the design of ‘theomorphic’ robots and questions for future research are derived.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the visitors who commented on BlessU2. We also would like to thank the Protestant Church of Hesse and Nassau who made the comments available to our analysis. We thank David Sauer, Tabea Blenk and Jonas Kraft for digitalising the comment forms, as well as Michael Rojkov and Swantje Luthe for their help in conducting the second study. We thank our participants for their time in our second study, and the SuSaGroup for providing a free academic license for the PrEmo tool for its duration. We thank LuxAI S.A. for letting us test robot “QT” during a trial order.

Funding

This study was partly funded by the Equality Commission of Würzburg University.

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Correspondence to Diana Löffler.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Human and Animal Rights

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

For the anonymous, voluntary survey in study 1, no signed, informed consent form is required. This form would have been the only record linking the subjects and the research, thereby increasing the principal risk of potential harm resulting from a breach of confidentiality. Moreover, the research presents no more than minimal risk of harm to subjects and involved no procedures for which written consent is normally required outside of the research context. For study 2, informed consent was obtained from all participants for being included in the study.

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Löffler, D., Hurtienne, J. & Nord, I. Blessing Robot BlessU2: A Discursive Design Study to Understand the Implications of Social Robots in Religious Contexts. Int J of Soc Robotics (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12369-019-00558-3

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Keywords

  • Robots
  • Religion
  • Discursive design
  • Automation
  • Desirable futures
  • Speculative design
  • Techno-spirituality