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“Future Humans-Human Futures: Religion, Ethics, and Technology”

Why a Project on the Future of Humanity?

In October 2017, Saudi Arabia became the first nation to grant citizenship to a machine: a humanoid, Artificial Intelligence (AI) robot named Sophia. Hearing this news, Sophia expressed delight and hoped to vote and attend college.The Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced last year that he had genetically modified twin babies to render them and their descendants immune to HIV/AIDS. Moreover, scientists can now “humanize” mice with human DNA for medical testing and can humanize pigs to grow more human-like organs for transplants into humans.

The rapid escalation of technological innovations, such as these, raises salient questions: Should intelligent machines enjoy human rights such as voting, citizenship, or protection from assault? Will genetic engineering render human identity a trivial notion of the past? Is technology inaugurating a posthuman age?

“Future Humans, Human Futures: Religion and Technology in a Posthuman Age,” establishes a new direction in the human-centered, humanistic engagement with the societal impact of technology by addressing fundamental questions of human/posthuman identity through multiple approaches. Because religious traditions have invested most thoroughly in addressing the ultimate meaning of being human, religious studies scholars and trained experts in theological studies are uniquely adept at studying the problem of humanity and technology. This research will address a range of issues, particularly examining the future of humanity in the areas of human-machine combining (cybernetics), synthetic biology, and an increasingly automated labor force. Key themes include: (1) what constitutes the human, especially as the world’s militaries combine humans with machines for warfare; (2) human exceptionalism, the Anthropocene, and the approaches that multiple religious traditions have employed; and (3) how the justice-politics of liberation theologies might address religious and ethical challenges of AI, cybernetics, and genetic engineering.

Our project anchors these research pursuits with inclusive approaches to diversifying the stakeholders who are shaping research initiatives that will guide the use and public impact of technology. The project responds to the fact that technology is customarily treated as a slate of technical challenges with insufficient regard for societal innovation and humanistic approaches. Thus, the proposed project structures a global collaboration of scholars to develop research-based insights into a broad set of concepts and problems of the human condition. 


Project and Goals

The “Future Humans, Human Futures” research project, funded with generous support from the Henry Luce Foundation, convenes scholars of religion and theology in conversation with an eclectic array of technology experts. The project emphasizes a broad range of religions, inclding those of Orisa devotion such as Vodun, Yoruba, and Candomblé; Native American religions; Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

Future Humans-Human Futures encompasses a broad geographic purview by bringing scholars from multiple continents together in dialogue to foreground major research agenda that can be explored collaboratively.

The project crosses academic boundaries by incorporating participation from private industry and technology companies; community activists; civil liberties organizations; civic groups, think-tanks, and policy organizations; and governmental entities, including state and federal policy makers and military experts.

Through a series of week-long institutes, public-facing workshops, symposia, and public talks, the “Future Humans-Human Futures” project critically examines received assumptions about religion, secularity, and public culture by foregrounding the theological quandaries raised by new and emerging technology and by drawing on theoretical studies of religion, secularism, and democracy that analyze power through attention to highly vulnerable populations and histories of dehumanization.

This Luce-funded project also works inventively at the intersections of theological inquiry and the multidisciplinary study of religion by examining technology as a comprehensive cultural phenomenon that can be studied through multiple approaches, including historical and theoretical methods. It leverages the ways that technology is reintroducing classic questions long pursued through the historical, multidisciplinary role of theology, as exemplified by classical thinkers such as Aristotle (his treatise on the soul De Anima) and Ibn Rushd (his theological analysis of the intellect) and contemporary scholars such as Achille Mbembe.

Moreover, through engagement with policy and activist communities, the project will support research development in the next generation of scholars by preparing them to help shape the ethical, public guidance of technology grounded in technological and policy literacy.


Project Narrative

Can things do things? Does matter have agency? This is just one question raised by political scientist Jane Bennett in her widely engaged book Vibrant Matter (2009). Since the 1400s, Indigenous religions throughout the world have been studied and, until recently, typically derided for their theological approach to what might be called “the life of things.” For centuries, many Western religious thinkers claimed that the world’s Indigenous races practiced a religion of “fetishism” or “animism” that attributed agency and personhood to inanimate objects, a trend that Westerners typically claimed was delusional and that justified excluding dominated races from democratic society.

Today, a number of casual and expert observers have asserted a new delusion is afoot, one in which inanimate objects imbued with machine learning, speech recognition, and robotic movement are increasingly performing tasks previously done by biological humans. This rapid increase of intelligent machine applications has ignited new discussions about religion and human identity, mirroring early debates about non-Western religions and political exclusion. Saudi Arabia, for instance, became the first nation to grant citizenship to a machine two years ago--a humanoid, Artificial Intelligence (AI) robot named Sophia. Thousands of people now have brain implants that use AI to enhance their health (e.g., treating Parkinson’s disease) or restore physical capacity. Does the ability to engineer machines to do human things and, alternatively, to alter humans genetically and by combining them with machines (cybernetics) mean we have reached the end of humanity as a meaningful identity? Are we entering a posthuman age? Will people who are part machine be treated as a separate race?

“Future Humans, Human Futures: Democracy, Humanity, and Technology in a Posthuman Age,” will establish new research grounded in the human-centered, humanistic engagement with new and emerging technology by examining what it means to be human in a technological age. The project will prepare junior and senior scholars of religion and theology to develop new research on religion, human identity, and technology.

A central question will undergird the diversity of research projects this effort will nurture: what insights does research in religion and theology offer for guiding an ethical future of technology when we focus on highly vulnerable populations—those who have been literally dehumanized and subject to exclusion from democratic society on the basis of race, sexuality, gender identity, disability, and other forms of identity? This project will also emphasize inclusion of scholars from under-represented groups.

This project will proceed over a three-year period through a series of (1) summer research institutes, (2) workshops for invited collaborators, (3) public engagement summits, and (4) annual lectures.

Because religious traditions have invested most thoroughly in addressing the ultimate meaning of being human, experts in religious studies and theology are uniquely positioned to study this set of issues. Moreover, because non-Western religious paradigms and historically dominated peoples have been at the seat of consternation over perceived delusions about objecthood and personhood, this project emphasizes inclusion of theologies and experiences of populations who have been dehumanized and engages closely (though not exclusively) with Indigenous theologies and religious systems of Africa, the Americas, Australia, and Asia.