Earlier this month, in time for Reformation Day, the 16th century Reformer Martin Luther was born again as a walking talking video bot, powered by AI. The Luther avatar stood in a church pulpit, and then descended to move about a church altar, answering questions from viewers in a live YouTube video. The answers were provided by ChatGPT, which had been briefed to respond in character as a 21st century upgrade of Martin Luther.
The real Reformer was a lifelong fan of beer and sausages, with a waistline to match, but his 21st century incarnation was notably slim. Still, he was able to walk, talk in lip-synch, gesticulate with his hands, and move naturally while speaking. Over the course of an hour, viewers asked their questions via YouTube comments, wanting to know:
What do you think of Halloween? Why were you so anti-Jewish? What do you think about being resurrected as AI? And even – this is YouTube, after all – can you tell me how to bypass a car battery?
On the Jewish question, Luther responded with an apology of sorts: ‘It is important to treat this question with historical understanding and context. In my later writings, anti-Semitic views were expressed, and I deeply regret that these views were not in accordance with the Christian faith and contradict the teachings of Christ, which call for love of neighbour and respect for human dignity.’
The blandness of the answer was a reminder both that the 21st century version of Luther had lost something in translation, and that there are dangers in sending a bot out to answer questions of such huge moral weight.
The Luther avatar was modelled on the portrait of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach, as shown in the image at top left of this page. And the 3D church sanctuary was based on the Lutherkirche in Mülheim-Speldorf, Germany, which is local to three members of the project team.
The project resonated with us at Ship of Fools, as it has a similar look and feel to Church of Fools, the virtual church project we ran over the summer of 2004, where online visitors entered an immersive environment and took part in church services which included prayer and preaching. The avatar for one of our preachers, Revd Lucy Winkett, is shown above.
The Reformation Day event is the first outing for the Luther avatar, and its creators, who are backed by the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland, see the live session as the beginning of an experiment into AI and religion. Quoted on the Theonet blog, they say: ‘Our goal is to allow audiences to experience what Luther signifies for the 21st century. This avatar could serve as a valuable tool for classes of religious instruction.’
But they also foresee other possibilities, well beyond an AI interpretation of Martin Luther. ‘Consider the possibility of creating an avatar for Jesus. This inevitably prompts us to ask: Whose interpretation of Jesus would the avatar represent? In daily life, many ponder the question, “What would Jesus do?” Now, imagine if they could directly ask a lifelike avatar of Jesus on their cellphone, “What would you do?” As theologians, how should we approach and respond to such a possibility?’
The full chat session with the Martin Luther avatar can be viewed above. It is in German, but when viewed on YouTube, subtitles in English can be added in the video settings.