The robotic monk is facing a wall, charging up when I first approach the Longquan Temple’s booth at TechCrunch’s event in Hangzhou, China. There’s probably a good metaphor here for meditation or mindfulness, but as a terrible meditator who semi-regularly runs into objects while his mind is somewhere else entirely, I’m struggling to find the right one.
The whole spectacle is an unusual one, alongside row after row of the Chinese companies that dot Startup Alley. Robe-wearing monks meander around, in front of cartoon drawings and figures of Xian’er, the “Worthy Stupid Robot Monk.” He’s a two-foot-high robot that is something akin to a Buddhist version of SoftBank’s Pepper. He’s an adorable little ‘bot with little in the way of articulation, that sports a small tablet atop his belly.
This particular model is one of three versions of the robot that currently exist in the world, designed to greet young visitors at Longquan Temple in Beijing. Children can interact with the robot through the touchscreen or a voice remote, asking it one of 100+ questions. Rather than utilizing some bit of consumer AI like Alexa or Siri, however, the robot is trained to offer up answers provided by the temple’s masters.
The robotic version of Xian’er, which is also the subject of books and cartoons, was created in 2015 with help from a number of key Chinese tech firms, including Tencent and iFlytek. It’s designed to serve as an ambassador, helping to help educate children about the ways of Longquan and help bring the temple into the 21st century.