Wednesday, April 21, 2021 - 7:30pm - 9:00pm
Professor Sylvester Johnson, founding director of the Virginia Tech Center for Humanities

Description: From Aristotle’s ancient conception of the soul to Ibn Rushd’s 12th -century analytics of the intellect to the information theory underlying neural networks, scholars have queried the agency of things and the relationship between matter and its other (spirit?). Does agency inhere in material things? Can an assemblage of machine parts be a person? What distinguishes humans from mere objects? In this talk, Sylvester Johnson takes up these questions. He proposes that the use of intelligent machines (in the form of artificial intelligence or machine-learning applications) for human enhancement has crystallized these age-old conundrums in a new key. Machines have now been successfully engineered to write poetry, compose music, make moral decisions, and even program other machines. More importantly, military efforts to combine humans with intelligent machines are beginning to produce far-reaching consequences that move beyond scenarios that pit mere humans against mere machines.  By analyzing the 400-year history of fetishism, Johnson explains the consequences of current technology innovation that combine humans with intelligent machines for applications ranging from medical therapy to military super-soldiers.

This talk gives historical depth to contemporary developments in intelligent machine applications and cybernetics. Johnson discusses the prospect new frameworks for humans and non-humans on the horizon, one that promises to expose the limits of the human as a coherent category while creating new possibilities of machine life through, automated intelligence, and martial technologies.

Remote: Register in advance for this meeting: https://lafayette.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJwrcOqgqDsqEtN9Di7l2TOTMNZuj... After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.

Sylvester A. Johnson, the founding director of the Virginia Tech Center for Humanities, is a nationally recognized humanities scholar specializing in the study of technology, race, religion, and national security. He is also assistant vice provost for the humanities at Virginia Tech and executive director of the university’s Tech for Humanity initiative. His award-winning scholarship is advancing new approaches to understanding the human condition and social institutions of power in an age of intelligent machines and other forms of technology innovation. From 2014 to 2017, Johnson 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 of an early English corpus using named-entity recognition and topic-modeling. In 2017, he joined the faculty of Virginia Tech, where he advances research at the intersection of humanity and technology.

Johnson, who holds a faculty appointment in the Department of Religion and Culture, has authored The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity, a study of race and religious hatred that won the American Academy of Religion’s Best First Book award; and African American Religions, 1500-2000, an award-winning interpretation of five centuries of democracy, colonialism, and freedom in the Atlantic world. Johnson has also co-edited The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security Before and After 9/11. A founding co-editor of the Journal of Africana Religions, he has published more than 70 scholarly articles, essays, and reviews.


(Information drawn from https://liberalarts.vt.edu/departments-and-schools/department-of-religio...)

Sponsored by: 
The Lafayette Humanities Center, supported by the Department of Religious Studies, the Department of Philosophy, and the Office of the Provost