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 audience members that they 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, he is leading a university-wide effort to ensure that innovation is held accountable to the interests of humanity.

In this special report of Illumination, Virginia Tech experts explore the intersection of technology and humanity.


Special Report Features


If we don’t govern technologies, they may end up governing us.

What is the future of humanity in the age of intelligent machines?

Virginia Tech works to ensure that emerging technologies are in service to humanity.

Can science fiction help us imagine — and avoid — a dystopian future?

A futuristic landscape