Automated drones, driverless cars, and intelligent robotics are all marvels of technological ingenuity, yet insights from the humanities are needed to understand their full impact, according to Sylvester Johnson, Virginia Tech’s assistant vice provost for the humanities.

“As advancing technologies continue to transform modern life,” Johnson said, “the consequences for humanity only heighten the overarching significance of humanities research and teaching.”

Johnson, an award-winning scholar engaged in exploring humanity in the age of intelligent machines, joined the university last year to launch a new, forward-thinking center with just that focus.

The Center for Humanities, which received official approval in May, reflects Virginia Tech’s commitment to elevating the presence and profile of humanities disciplines across the university.

Led by President Tim Sands, the university will help Johnson mark the center’s launch in an Aug. 31 celebration in Blacksburg. Sands will give remarks, along with Cyril Clarke, Virginia Tech’s interim executive vice president and provost, and Rosemary Blieszner, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

Michael Bennett — an associate research professor in Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, the Center for Science and the Imagination, and the Risk Innovation Lab — will give the keynote address. The principal focus of his work is innovation in art and technoscience.

The nexus of innovation, art, and technology drives Johnson as well.

“I’m excited to be pursuing humanities at such a technologically rich university as Virginia Tech,” said Johnson, who is also a professor in the Department of Religion and Culture. “The university is investing in humanities in a forward-thinking way that will prove a model for other institutions.”

As director of the Center for Humanities, which is based in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, Johnson now oversees programs that support faculty fellowships, departmental grants, and events in the humanities. He will also lead the college’s participation in several new digital humanities initiatives both within the university and nationally.

Johnson, the editor of the Journal of Africana Religions and the author or co-editor of three books, most recently on the FBI and religion, joins a highly respected cadre of humanities experts at the university.

Payscale has consistently ranked Virginia Tech in the top 20 nationally for Best Value College for Humanities Majors. Nearly 1,500 undergraduates major or minor in one of the university’s humanities programs, which include the departments of EnglishModern and Classical Languages and LiteraturesHistoryPhilosophy, and Religion and Culture.

The center will build on collaborations across the university. Historians already work with computer scientists to uncover insights from deadly epidemics, philosophers work with engineers to detect patterns in nature, and literary scholars engage in iconic moments of space exploration.

Experts from these disparate fields also join together to contribute to the university’s Destination Areas, transdisciplinary platforms for research, learning, and engagement that bring a human perspective into fields classically enabled by science and technology.

These areas of inquiry, Johnson said, illustrate the truism that the moment of humanities is not behind us, shimmering in a now-forgotten golden age, but before us.

“After decades of handwringing over whether the expansion of technology threatens the relevance of the humanities,” he said, “we’re beginning to witness our technological age pushing big humanities questions to the forefront of our most urgent concerns.

“What’s at stake in the rapid advance of digital technologies is literally what it means to be human.”

The August 31 celebration will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. in the Latham Ballroom of the Inn at Virginia Tech. Both the university community and the public are invited. RSVPs for the free event may be made by calling 540-231-5380 or emailing LaTawnya Burleson.

Written by Paula Byron