In Japan, robot-for-hire programmed to perform Buddhist funeral rites

TOKYO, Aug 23 (Reuters) - A Japanese company has introduced a new role for SoftBank's humanoid robot "Pepper" - a Buddhist priest for hire at funerals.

Chanting sutras in a computerized voice while tapping a drum, the robot was on display on Wednesday at a funeral industry fair - the Life Ending Industry Expo - in Tokyo.

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Nissei Eco Co., an unlisted plastic molding maker, wrote the chanting software for "Pepper," which was introduced by SoftBank Group Corp. in 2014.

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Japan's priest robots
A 'robot priest' wearing a Buddhist robe stands in front of a funeral altar during its demonstration at Life Ending Industry EXPO 2017 in Tokyo, Japan August 23, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
A 'robot priest' wearing a Buddhist robe chants sutras at it beats a wooden fish during its demonstration at Life Ending Industry EXPO 2017 in Tokyo, Japan August 23, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
A Buddhist monk looks at a 'robot priest' wearing a Buddhist robe during its demonstration at Life Ending Industry EXPO 2017 in Tokyo, Japan August 23, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
A 'robot priest' wearing a Buddhist robe holds a stick to beat a wooden fish during its demonstration at Life Ending Industry EXPO 2017 in Tokyo, Japan August 23, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
A 'robot priest' wearing a Buddhist robe chants sutras at it beats a wooden fish during its demonstration at Life Ending Industry EXPO 2017 in Tokyo, Japan August 23, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
A 'robot priest' wearing a Buddhist robe stands in front of a funeral altar during its demonstration at Life Ending Industry EXPO 2017 in Tokyo, Japan August 23, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
A 'robot priest' wearing a Buddhist robe stands in front of a funeral altar during its demonstration at Life Ending Industry EXPO 2017 in Tokyo, Japan August 23, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
A 'robot priest' wearing a Buddhist robe chants sutras during its demonstration at Life Ending Industry EXPO 2017 in Tokyo, Japan August 23, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A Buddhist monk looks at a 'robot priest' wearing a Buddhist robe during its demonstration at Life Ending Industry EXPO 2017 in Tokyo, Japan August 23, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
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With Japan's population aging and shrinking, many Buddhist priests receive less financial support from their communities, prompting some to find part-time work outside their temple duties, said Michio Inamura, Nissei's executive adviser.

The funeral robot could step in when a priest was not available, he said. It also cost less at 50,000 yen (about $450) per funeral compared to more than 240,000 yen ($2,200) for a human priest.

Buddhist priest Tetsugi Matsuo said he came to the expo to see if Pepper could "impart the 'heart' aspect to a machine because I believe that the 'heart' is the foundation of religion."

The robot has not yet been hired for a funeral. 

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