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

Introduction

The Henry Luce Foundation’s Theology Program has awarded $500,000 to the Virginia Tech Center for Humanities to support “Future Humans, Human Futures,” a project on religion, ethics, and technology that tackles fundamental questions of what it means to be human in a technological age (Read announcement here).

Future Humans – Human Futures is a three-year project led by Principal Investigator and Director of the Center for Humanities, Sylvester Johnson, He also serves as Executive Director of VT’s “Tech for Humanity” initiative, a university-wide effort focusing on human-centered approaches to technology and innovation. The Center for Humanities coordinates this three-year, Luce-funded project to promote new directions in research by national and global humanities scholars with expertise in theology and religion.

The “Future Humans, Human Futures” crosses religious boundaries by assembling scholars of religion and theology across  multiple traditions. This includes religions of Orisa devotion such as Vodun, Yoruba, and  Candomblé; Native American religions; Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The project crosses geographic boundaries by bringing scholars from Africa, Asia, Australia , Europe, and the Americas. 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 at the state and federal levels. 

Project Overview

The rapid  escalation of technological innovations 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 addresses a  range of issues, particularly examining the future of humanity in the areas of human-machine  combining (cybernetics), agriculture, 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;
  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.

This project will achieve the following outcomes over a three-year period: 

  • Operating a "Sustainable English-as-Second-Language (ESL)" program for immigrant farm  workers from July 2020 to October 2020 
  • Establishing a series of annual summer research institutes to equip junior scholars in religion  and theology and senior scholars seeking a new direction in their research to understand the  challenges of AI and cybernetics technologies for the future of humanity 
  • Conducting a series of annual research workshops (two-days in length) for invited  collaborators to develop new research and insights for scholarship on the relationship of  technology to religion and theology 
  • Producing a series of public-engagement summits designed to impact public understanding  (among policy experts, activists, civil liberties groups, civic organizations, and media  personnel) of religion and theology within the context of new and emerging technology 
  • Hosting an annual lecture series focusing on technology's intersection with religion and  theology
  • Publishing research in an edited volume by scholars of religion and theology that examines  the ethical guidance of technology. 

Learn More About the Project

Summer research institutes enable researchers in religion and theology to engage with experts in technology and innovation domains such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), synthetic biology, and cybernetics (combining humans with machines). Participants learn how technology is impacting a complex world and will advance their scholarship in light of the growing need for human-centered guidance. The project also seeks to deepen the diversity and inclusion of underrepresented populations whose insights and participation are essential to shaping the role of technology for public good and public interest.

Annual summits convene to foster public engagement with scholarship on religion and  theology addressing the societal impact of technology.  The public summits feature publicly engaged speakers to attract a broad audience and panels of experts focusing on the new and emerging challenges of technology demanding critical  attention to outcomes. 

Annual lectures, in contrast to the summits, focus on scholarly audiences of faculty, graduate  students, and undergraduates at Virginia Tech. The Center for Humanities is inviting external  speakers to share research in a way that critically examines received assumptions about religion,  technology, and theology. The annual lectures make room for more advanced scholarly  discussions of problems and themes in the study of religion and theology that have broad  implications, but also a level of rigor that appeals to academics serious about understanding what  technology innovation implies for the shape of their disciplines, methods of study, and theories of  social power, human identity, and existence.