Robots in the pulpit?

In the midst of the digital revolution, a slew of economic forecasters have recently projected massive restructuring in the workforce.

Japanese actor Ken Matsudaira (R), clad in a robot suit, smiles with an android robot (L) in his likeness called "Real Android Matsuken" at a press presentation in Tokyo on November 19, 2013. The android robot was developed for an advertisement for Japanese telecom company KDDI.      AFP PHOTO / YOSHIKAZU TSUNO '        (Photo credit should read YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)

Perhaps most prominent among these forecasters are Oxford researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne. In their 2013 article, “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerization?” they conducted a meta-analysis of 700 types of occupations in the United States using data from the US Department of Labor and the Bureau of Labor Statistics and found that nearly half of them (or 47%) were susceptible to automation and displacement due to artificial intelligence in two decades. For the United Kingdom, they estimate that 35% of current occupations are at a high risk of automation and thus displacement.

MIT colleagues Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in their book The Second Age likewise believe the digital revolution will exacerbate income inequality and eliminate low-wage earning jobs across the board. As they predict, “Rapid and accelerating digitization is likely to bring economic rather than environmental disruption, stemming from the fact that as computers get more powerful, companies have less need for some kinds of workers. Technological progress is going to leave behind some people, perhaps even a lot of people, as it races ahead.”[1]

While this news looks dire, I would argue that it presents unprecedented opportunities for religious professionals. First, as Frey and Osborne predict, clergy have less than a 1% chance of having their jobs replaced by robots. Granted, while fancy statistical models are hardly required to make this assumption, it does raise some interesting thought experiments. How could a robot replace those who contemplate the divine, interpret sacred texts, or look after people’s souls? How could even a very intelligent piece of software—like that of Watson—be entrusted to pray on the behalf of a congregation, provide care and consolation for those in the midst of grief, or charge important religious rituals such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals with cosmic significance?

The answer is that they can’t, not because advances in technology have halted—they surely haven’t!—but because the thing that makes computers so powerful is their ability to follow rules and solve problems. For robots, the realm of faith is reduced to statistical probabilities, and curiously, their inability to doubt inhibits their ability to be imaginative, creative, or contemplative. Though he overstated his case, Pablo Picasso was on to something when he said of computers, “They are useless. They can only give you answers.”

But if even priests and pastors have relative job security in the coming digital economy, this doesn’t mean everyone else does. As Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue, the digital revolution will exacerbate income inequality and eliminate low-wage earning jobs across the board. As they explain, “there’s never been a worse time to be a worker with only ‘ordinary’ skills and abilities to offer, because computers, robots, and other digital technologies are acquiring these skills and abilities at an extraordinary rate.”[2]

If anything, what this means for those in the religious guild is that there could very well be greater inequality, unemployment, and poverty. There could very well be more need and greater distress in one’s congregation, community, and city. There could be more questions about why people can’t provide for their family or find work where they live. And if these questions and conditions surface, then, there will be more than just a need for economic solutions and technological fixes.

Paul McClure


[1] Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2014), 10-11.

[2] Ibid.


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