A new project at the Virginia Tech Center for Humanities seeks to advance research in religion, theology, and technology ethics by bringing together scholars and industry experts to examine how advancements in areas such as AI, cybernetics, and surveillance impact society. The project will look closely at the effects of technology on “those who are already highly vulnerable to structural systems of inequality,” many of whom have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The technologies may be new, but wisdom in understanding their significance to humanity has been accruing since at least the 12th century.
It was then that the Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd distinguished “sensing” from “feeling” as a crucial point in a larger argument for why humans should be considered fundamentally different from other living entities.
“Ibn Rushd would allow that although trees might sense light and turn toward it in their growth, they could not feel love or happiness, as he argued this was a uniquely human capacity,” said Sylvester Johnson, director of the Virginia Tech Center for Humanities. “His insights carry relevance today, as we wrestle with questions of ‘humanized’ artificial intelligence and human exceptionalism within the context of intelligent machines.”
In the spirit of such exploration, the Henry Luce Foundation’s Theology Program has awarded the Center for Humanities a $500,000 grant to support “Future Humans, Human Futures,” a project that combines religion, ethics, and technology to tackle fundamental questions of what it means to be human in a technological age.
The three-year project will enable researchers in religion and theology to engage with experts in technology and innovation domains, such as artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and cybernetics. These experts will convene during a series of summer research institutes to learn how technology is affecting an ever-increasingly complex world and to advance their scholarship in light of the growing need for human-centered guidance.
“We are very excited for this unique opportunity to partner with the Luce Foundation to advance research in religion, theology, and technology ethics,” said Johnson, a professor of religion and culture who will serve as principal investigator of the project. “The human-centered challenges that technology is raising require new directions and greater inclusivity in the scholarship addressing difficult questions about technology’s public impact. Luce’s bold and game-changing generosity to support this effort is something we should all celebrate.”
Johnson noted that the overarching goal of the project will be to promote new directions in research by national and global humanities scholars with expertise in theology and religion. The project will also seek to deepen the diversity and inclusion of underrepresented populations whose insights and participation are essential to shaping the role of technology for public good and public interest.