The information and technology center at Longquan Temple is working on AI to improve their robot monk Xian’er and organize Chinese Buddhist Canon (大藏经), the total body of Buddhist canon in Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese, said Xinxian Master of the temple at TechCrunch Hangzhou
The center optimized optical character recognition via machine learning, making the technology more suited for ancient characters. Now, the AI technology can even add punctuation to the ancient texts, notoriously difficult to parse much less understand.
Xian’er, meaning virtuous but stupid in Chinese, is a robot monk. It’s about half a meter tall and holds a tablet in front of his belly. You can either talk to the robot or select questions on the screen. The robot monk also exists in a WeChat mini program. Unlike Siri which answers more down-to-earth questions like “how’s the weather”, Xian’er is designed to tackle metaphysical problems like the meaning of life.
“What’s the meaning of life,” one might ask.
Xian’er quoted a famous Chinese writer Feng Zikai: “There are three stages of life, meaning material, spiritual and soul. Material life means food and clothing, spiritual means art and literature, and soul means religion. One can not always stay in the first stage. One needs to move upward.”
The official WeChat account already has 1.3 million followers. The temple also produced an educational cartoon series featuring Xian’er practicing Buddhism. However, the temple does not plan to turn a profit from Xian’er and its related products. With the help of AI, Xian’er is expected to read and parse Buddhist scripture in the future.
Chinese popular martial arts and chivalry novels always depict ancient Buddhism temples as retreats of geniuses. In the tech-driven twenty-first century, Longquan Temple is perceived by many Chinese as a shelter for computer science geniuses who are tired of the secular world. There myths about how, after visiting the temple, tech entrepreneurs developed revolutionary products, including WeChat.
Longquan Temple isn’t the first one that has tried to facilitate Buddhism with technology. Last year, Japanese company Nissei Eco last developed a chanting feature for SoftBank’s android Pepper, making the robot available for funeral services.