US President Barack Obama speaks in Boise, Idaho on Jan. 21, 2015 (Photo by Saul Loeb for Agence France-Presse.)
US President Barack Obama on Wednesday met the wife of a Christian pastor who has been jailed in Iran for over two years, vowing to work to win his release.
Obama met the wife of Saeed Abedini during a visit to Boise, Idaho, where the president was selling his vision of a more equal America, unveiled in a State of the Union address on Tuesday.
"The United States is concerned about the unjust detention of several Americans in Iran, including Mr. Abedini," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
He said Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with his Iranian counterpart in the last 10 days about securing the release of Abedini, former US Marine Amir Hekmati and Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian.
"This continues to be a priority for the administration," said Earnest, who noted that the meeting with Abedini's wife Naghmeh took place just before the president's remarks at Boise State University.
Obama appeared at the university to sell his plan for distributive "middle-class economics" -- a last push in the twilight years of his presidency.
"I've got two years left in office, I'm not going to stop trying," he told students.
In an address laden with sports metaphors, Obama added, "I don't need to remind you that big things happen late in the fourth quarter," beside huge sports banners reading "RELENTLESS" and "DISCIPLINE."
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who has long resisted any effort to give information to investigators about what happened on and during the leadup to the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, appears ready to acknowledge he has no choice but to speak to special counsel Jack Smith.
Speaking to MSNBC's Alex Wagner on Thursday, former Georgia-based U.S. Attorney Michael Moore outlined what that could look like — and what sorts of questions Smith might want answered by the former vice president.
"Michael, is there a world in which there's a narrowly subscribe set of conversations that Pence had in the context of him being a President of the Senate that are off limits, but everything else, including conversations that happened in the Oval Office, that have nothing to do with his ministerial role, those aren't off limits?" asked Wagner.
"In other words, is there some version of this resolution where he gets the have his cake on the Speech and Debate Clause, and that's a narrow set of conversations, but the important conversations, the most relevant conversations are very much on the table, as far as testimony with the grand jury?"
"There might be a way to split the baby in the circumstance," said Moore. "You might find that there's some conversations that are protected and off limits from public questioning. I'm not going to say they necessarily follow under the Constitution. But the judge may say, look, I'm not gonna make you go into this, mister prosecutor, but I am gonna let you talk about that."
"Tell me about what happened, tell me about what you saw, tell me about what you observed, tell me about what was said to you," said Moore, as examples of what Smith could ask Pence. "Tell me about those types of things at the time that are more, I guess, contemporary a type of observation, as opposed to something that maybe he talked about with a colleague that was in the Senate at the time that he may have been standing in the chamber or something. So there may be a way to do that, and I could see how that could happen. But again, the special counsel's looking for this information about what did Trump know? What were you told to do? What did you see at the time? Did you get a note, did somebody send you something? So this will really get at the heart of what was going on down at the other end of Washington, away from the Capitol."
It isn’t just artists and teachers who are losing sleep over advances in automation and artificial intelligence. Robots are being brought into Hinduism’s holiest rituals – and not all worshippers are happy about it.
In 2017, a technology firm in India introduced a robotic arm to perform “aarti,” a ritual in which a devotee offers an oil lamp to the deity to symbolize the removal of darkness. This particular robot was unveiled at the Ganpati festival, a yearly gathering of millions of people in which an icon of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, is taken out in a procession and immersed in the Mula-Mutha river in Pune in central India.
While the contemporary version of automated ritual might look like downloading a phone app that chants mantras without the need for any prayer object at all, such as a mala or rosary, these new versions of ritual-performing robots have prompted complicated conversations.
Thaneswar Sarmah, a Sanskrit scholar and literary critic, argues that the first Hindu robot appeared in the stories of King Manu, the first king of the human race in Hindu belief. Manu’s mother, Saranyu – herself the daughter of a great architect – built an animate statue to perfectly perform all of her household chores and ritual obligations.
Visvakarman, considered to be the architect of the universe in Hindu belief.
Folklorist Adrienne Mayorremarks similarly that religious stories about mechanized icons from Hindu epics, such as the mechanical war chariots of the Hindu engineer god Visvakarman, are often viewed as the progenitors of religious robots today.
However, the recent use of AI and robotics in religious practice is leading to concerns among Hindus and Buddhists about the kind of future to which automation could lead. In some instances, the debate among Hindus is about whether automated religion promises the arrival of humanity into a bright, new, technological future or if it is simply evidence of the coming apocalypse.
In other cases, there are concerns that the proliferation of robots might lead to greater numbers of people leaving religious practice as temples begin to rely more on automation than on practitioners to care for their deities. Some of these concerns stem from the fact that many religions, both in South Asia and globally, have seen significant decreases in the number of young people willing to dedicate their lives to spiritual education and practice over the past few decades. Furthermore, with many families living in a diaspora scattered across the world, priests or “pandits” are often serving smaller and smaller communities.
Scholars often note that these concerns all tend to reflect one pervasive theme – an underlying anxiety that, somehow, the robots are better at worshipping gods than humans are. They can also raise inner conflicts about the meaning of life and one’s place in the universe.
For Hindus and Buddhists, the rise of ritual automation is especially concerning because their traditions emphasize what religion scholars refer to as orthopraxy, where greater importance is placed on correct ethical and liturgical behavior than on specific beliefs in religious doctrines. In other words, perfecting what you do in terms of your religious practice is viewed as more necessary to spiritual advancement than whatever it is you personally believe.
This also means that automated rituals appear on a spectrum that progresses from human ritual fallibility to robotic ritual perfection. In short, the robot can do your religion better than you can because robots, unlike people, are spiritually incorruptible.
This not only makes robots attractive replacements for dwindling priesthoods but also explains their increasing use in everyday contexts: People use them because no one worries about the robot getting it wrong, and they are often better than nothing when the options for ritual performance are limited.
Saved by a robot
In the end, turning to a robot for religious restoration in modern Hinduism or Buddhism might seem futuristic, but it belongs very much to the present moment. It tells us that Hinduism, Buddhism and other religions in South Asia are increasingly being imagined as post- or transhuman: deploying technological ingenuity to transcend human weaknesses because robots don’t get tired, forget what they’re supposed to say, fall asleep or leave.
More specifically, this means that robotic automation is being used to perfect ritual practices in East Asia and South Asia – especially in India and Japan – beyond what would be possible for a human devotee, by linking impossibly consistent and flawless ritual accomplishment with an idea of better religion.
Modern robotics might then feel like a particular kind of cultural paradox, where the best kind of religion is the one that eventually involves no humans at all. But in this circularity of humans creating robots, robots becoming gods, and gods becoming human, we’ve only managed to, once again, re-imagine ourselves.