A humanities project using artificial intelligence led Sylvester Johnson to explore a host of real-life issues.

“Could a machine read a humanities text and discuss insights with human researchers? If so, would this mean that thinking and reasoning were not unique to biological humans?” Johnson said he asked himself at the time of the project, several years ago. “This made me realize that technology is not only technical, but also a comprehensive issue that raises profoundly human questions.”

Today, the award-winning scholar is exploring the intersection of technology, ethics, culture, and humanity as the founding director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Humanities and as executive director of a new, university-wide initiative, Tech for Humanity.

“Being at Virginia Tech at this moment in history is a grand opportunity to help prepare a new generation of students to guide our society through our technological challenges and yield a society most people will want to live in,” said Johnson, who also serves as the university’s assistant vice provost for the humanities. “This initiative is a demonstration of the university’s understanding that human-centered approaches to technology are essential to our shared future.”

Johnson joined Virginia Tech as a professor in the Department of Religion and Culture in 2017. Prior to that, he led a 20-member team of humanists and technologists at Northwestern University to develop a successful proof-of-concept for a machine-learning system that could assist in scholarly research. He helped officially launch Virginia Tech’s Center for Humanities in August 2018.

Throughout his academic career, Johnson has researched social systems of power to understand their impact on disparity and equality, and he has explored the deep questions within such areas as race, religion, and politics. He holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. in contemporary religious thought from the Union Theological Seminary, where he also earned an M.Phil. in systematic theology. He earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry and education at Florida A&M University.

No stranger to complex issues, Johnson will lead Tech for Humanity in taking human-centered approaches to address the societal impact and governance of technological innovations. The initiative will touch all of Virginia Tech’s nine colleges and a range of centers and institutes across the university’s campuses in Blacksburg, Roanoke, and Northern Virginia.

Johnson said he believes the initiative launches at a critical time in human history. Innovations are constantly enhancing almost every field, while at the same time, news of biased outcomes from artificial intelligence applications and discussions of technology regulation have become the norm.

“Failures to address the pitfalls of technologies have already created tremendous problems, some of which threaten to undermine privacy and democracy,” said Johnson. “Rapid advances in artificial intelligence, human-machine interfaces, and synthetic biology are increasingly showing that technology isn’t only technical; it’s also social, cultural, political, and economic. Technology is fundamentally a human issue that demands comprehensive, human-centered approaches.”

To meet such challenges, Tech for Humanity will produce research within and across disciplines, convene thought leaders and decision-makers across institutions on critical issues, and help prepare a new generation of undergraduate and graduate students to guide a human-centered future for societies increasingly shaped by innovation.

The initiative will also develop an international consortium of partners with global perspective and leverage the university’s Destination Areas to support the collaboration essential to its work, while also creating an environment for engaging private industry, civic, and civil liberty entities committed to making technology work for public good.

“We will create more opportunities for our students to study technology comprehensively through human-centered approaches,” Johnson said. “This form of curriculum development will mean that Virginia Tech will lead a new cadre of ‘technologists’ so that the term means not only technical knowledge, but also understanding of complex approaches to such issues as policy, business, equity, ethics, and human identity. Technology leaders must come from an array of disciplines and will need to understand how challenges such as inequality and sustainability relate to innovation.”

Tech for Humanity will work hand-in-hand with the Center for Humanities, which is based in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, to create new opportunities within the college to equip students to understand the intersection of the human condition, social and civic institutions, and emerging technology. This work will emphasize addressing the foundational concerns about the future of democracy in a world increasingly shaped by innovation.

Johnson believes Virginia Tech — with its technical leadership and commitment to this well-rounded approach to innovation — is poised to be at the forefront of addressing an emerging global need.

“Virginia Tech is the right institution for this initiative. Approaching technology through a transdisciplinary orientation is in the DNA of this university,” Johnson said.  “As technology innovation accelerates and produces a greater impact on virtually every aspect of our lives, we will have a unique opportunity to help lead a human-centered era of technology.”

Written by Travis Williams and photographed by Jason Jones