Is it possible to train robots to do pastoral care?

I recently finished reading Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler’s book Bold, which is all about looking at areas of exponential change in the culture around us and leveraging those opportunities. It is a great read for leaders looking to expand their thinking about the future. One part of the conversation is recent breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and the role it might play in our daily lives in the near future. It got me thinking about how this technology might also impact churches.

Then I listened to an NPR podcast called Planet Money, which explored the role of “robots” in today’s world and the areas where they are outpacing human abilities. There was a fascinating conversation about how military folks suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder preferred an experimental “robot therapist” over a human therapist. It got me thinking about how this sort of artificial intelligence might be a part of our pastoral care in the future.

Listen to a 6-minute excerpt from the program here:

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Did you hear the sincerity in that soldier’s voice? He feels more able to talk with a system that he knows isn’t human because of its inability to judge him! It accepts him for who he is and keeps the conversation moving along. What if we trained systems like this to help people understand scripture more clearly? Would there be a way to use a system like this to provide people with real-time pastoral counseling? Imagine an app that listens in on parents’ conversations with their kids and then gives some coaching from the teaching of Jesus on how to respond next.

Science fiction? Maybe … or maybe not.

Cleverbot is a web application that uses an artificial intelligence algorithm to have conversations with humans. If you haven’t had a “conversation” with Cleverbot, you should give it a try. At a conference in 2011, attendees had to choose which responses to questions where human and which were Cleverbot. People mistook Cleverbot for a human 59% of the time and correctly identified the human participants 63% of the time. [ref] Only a 4% difference between human and machine in general conversation is really close. At any given moment, Cleverbot is having 80,000 simultaneous conversations … to put that in context, according to the American Association of Christian Counselors there are just shy of 50,000 Christian counselors in the entire country. [ref] One web program is outpacing the entire Christian counseling community by a wide margin. People want to talk through their issues and are choosing to chat with an artificial intelligence to do it … today.

Another interesting system is Eliza, an early example of artificial intelligence developed in the 1960s that still holds up today when you interact with … her? Eliza was designed to emulate a Rogerian psychotherapist. By using a simple logic flow to respond to inputs from the user, Eliza attempts to help people understand themselves. She isn’t sophisticated at all but if users stick to talking about themselves, you’d be amazed at how human the system can seem. I wonder if a similar system could be developed that would help people process their prayer items. It could recall what users prayed about earlier and remind them of those issues. It would prompt them to continue to pray or to celebrate answers to prayer.

It seems like these ideas are starting to seep into the popular culture. The 2011 movie Her is set slightly in the future and is about a middle-aged man on the brink of a divorce from his high school sweetheart who falls in love with his artificial intelligence computer operating system. What starts as innocent conversations about his thought life ends up in a full-on affair between him and his computer. It seems weirdly impossible, in the same way that the 1998 Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show seemed inconceivable before the explosion of reality TV just a few years later. What if Her is actually tapping into a deeper reality that’s bubbling up around us … that people are more comfortable talking to computers than to other people?

Technology is a great partner in human development. Information and communication technology have always been about extending human abilities. In the same way that a hammer makes it possible for my hand and wrist to do more physical work, these technologies give me the ability to do more mental work. Spreadsheets allow us to calculate and track a ton of data but then our human minds need to analyze what that data is telling us … the spreadsheet augments our human abilities. Email allows us to hold hundreds or thousands of time-shifted conversations but it’s our ability to relate to people that needs to be at the core of online interactions … email is doing some of the heavy lifting in communicating but then we need to bring ourselves to those interactions with family and friends.  At what point will we use artificial intelligence to extend and scale our human abilities to care for one another? Is it possible that around the corner we will deploy this technology to help people grow closer to Jesus? Or will we echo the Luddites from the 1810s who resisted the mechanical boom because of its impact on the way things have always been done?

What uses for artificial intelligence could you see in the discipleship of people?


  1. Fascinating Rich.

    In coaching we often use similar questions and frameworks and rely on listening rather than teaching.

    In fact I talk about coaching yourself through a problem, so maybe robot coaches would work in a similar way to robot therapists.

    Sounds kinda weird but you Bennett know.

  2. I liked how focused Eliza was. Cleverbot was a bit too kooky for me. But for my first pastoral care robot experience, they were both pretty good!
    If anyone has standard operating procedures or scripts for pastoral care that you want turned into a website or app, I’d be happy to work with you.

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.