A fighter aircraft zooms and spins across the sky without a pilot, thousands of feet in the air.

Back on the ground, mechanical arms assemble the newest electric car models and strap them onto self-driving trucks parked in the loading bay. On the road, teenagers in self-driving cars snap selfies and upload them to the hottest smartphone app.

Artificial intelligence, automation, and data collection are on track to permeate even more aspects of society in the near future.

But should they?

“Technology is not created simply for the sake of creating technology,” said Aaron Brantly, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Tech. “We need to consider the impact of the technology on human beings. That’s the bullseye of our mission.”

Brantly and a team of Virginia Tech colleagues have launched the Tech4Humanity Lab to explore the influence of technology on humanity and the human condition. The transdisciplinary lab focuses on human security and equity within political, medical, social, economic, and environmental issues.

Portrait photos of Virginia Tech faculty members Aaron Brantly, Eric Jardine, Sylvester Johnson, and Clara Suong, who will serve as the Tech4Humanity Lab team members.
From left, Virginia Tech faculty members Aaron Brantly, Eric Jardine, Sylvester Johnson, and Clara Suong serve as Tech4Humanity Lab team members.

Part of the Tech for Humanity initiative and the Department of Political Science, the lab will provide research opportunities for students and faculty across the university. Researchers can immerse themselves in virtual reality systems allowing users to simulate the experience of moving through physical and digital spaces.

The lab will also offer powerful servers, 3-D printers, drones, and other technologies in the lab’s physical space inside the Center for Humanities, a College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences initiative with a university-wide focus.

Brantly, an expert on issues of democracy and human rights, said he’d long sought to establish a research center such as the Tech4Humanity Lab.

“Creating a space that emphasizes the human conditions aspects of technology has been my dream,” said Brantly. “After the announcement of the Tech for Humanity initiative last year, I realized an opportunity to collaborate with Sylvester Johnson.”

Johnson, director of the Center for Humanities, is also executive director of Tech for Humanity and the assistant vice provost for the humanities at Virginia Tech.

Brantly serves as the lab’s director. Other lab team members include Johnson; Eric Jardine, an assistant professor of political science; and Clara Suong, a visiting assistant professor of political science.

“The Tech4Humanity lab is focused on researching the relationship between digital technology and such issues as human rights, social justice, the environment, and other humanistic issues,” said Johnson, who is also a professor in the Department of Religion and Culture. “This means the lab will help advance public interest and public good at the very time our global society is witnessing unprecedented challenges and opportunities from new and emerging forms of digital systems.”

Suong serves as the lab’s deputy director for computational social science initiatives. She said she’s looking forward to introducing students to social science research using technical tools.

“This will be a truly exciting place for students in multiple disciplines to grasp the tools involved in artificial intelligence and machine learning,” said Suong.

Capacity in the lab is currently limited because of COVID-19 guidelines. But students and faculty can access some of the lab’s features online, including the servers running simulation systems.

Jardine, the lab’s deputy director of dark web initiatives, will focus primarily on issues of cybersecurity.

“Technologies have social effects, both good and ill,” said Jardine. “In net terms, leveraging technology to improve the human condition means both maximizing the benefits and managing the intended and unintended consequences of how these tools get used in practice. Understanding these cost-management processes can help ensure that technology continues to serve humanity well going forward.”

Ultimately, Brantly predicts, the lab’s research will help raise awareness in the general public — and among government leaders.

“We hope to raise macro-level issues to get policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels to consider whether they’re making the right decisions about technological advances and regulation,” said Brantly.

Timothy Luke, chair of the Department of Political Science, said he’s looking forward to the lab’s promotion of collaboration across the university.

“The Tech4Humanity Lab allows our faculty to advance their academic research on the ethical and political impact of technology on the human condition,” said Luke, who is a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech. “We also will engage colleagues in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences as well as other colleges through the Center for Humanities, helping to immerse a diverse group of students in hands-on experiential learning.”

Luke points out that the lab will offer career benefits to students.

“This transdisciplinary style of teaching and learning,” he said, “should prove to be an empowering opportunity for Virginia Tech students seeking crucial career-bridging skills to find their vocations in cybersecurity, human security, or national security jobs in the private and public sectors.”

Written by Andrew Adkins