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From the Dean: Cautionary Tales

Laura Belmonte sits for a portrait
Laura Belmonte, a political historian, has been dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences since August 2019. Photo by Erin Williams

When Sylvester Johnson recently took to the stage at the Moss Arts Center, a giant robotic hand loomed on the screen behind him.

The image was fitting, as Johnson began talking about the implications of living in the age of intelligent machines.

“What does it mean to be human in our world today, a world where machines are performing tasks that have been associated with people for so long, like giving directions or telling a bedtime story?” he asked.

The picture he painted of the future was sobering. “If we look ahead 30 years, humans are going to be much more enhanced,” he told the audience at Virginia Tech’s Boundless Impact Campaign launch in October 2019. “How will we continue to have a democratic society when the technology of artificial intelligence, cybernetics, and genetic engineering is accelerating so much faster than we are developing protocols for regulation?”

He reminded those of us in the audience that we needed to prepare for a future not yet imagined. “Innovation is happening so fast that it far outpaces our existing policies,” he said. “People are so excited about pushing out the next best thing that they’re not usually thinking about the societal consequences.”

Johnson may have been standing alone on that stage, but he’s far from standing alone at Virginia Tech. As executive director of Tech for Humanity, launched in August 2019, he is leading a university-wide effort to ensure that innovation is held accountable to the interests of humanity.

He is also directing the Center for Humanities, which is critical to this larger effort. The center, housed in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, devotes special attention to the key roles that humanists must play to prepare our students for a future in which equity, sustainability, and the human condition become central paradigms for determining the outcomes of our complex society.

With representation across our college, the center also represents an expanded definition of the humanities, encompassing the arts and human-centered social sciences.

Emerging technologies are forcing us to grapple with profound questions about what it means to be human. Yet now is not the time to wring our hands over the uncertain future of humanity. Now is the time to take action. And now is the time to be confident, with Virginia Tech leading the way.

Laura Belmonte
Dean, Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences