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Send in the Machines: Why We Need Humanities Scholars in Tech Governance

Sophia can carry on conversations, speak to the United Nations and make jokes on late-night television. And, last year, Saudi Arabia granted her citizenship. That may not sound too extraordinary–except Sophia is a humanoid robot.

In fact, Sophia appears to have more rights than many humans living and working in Saudi Arabia. For example, women in Saudi Arabia must veil in public and haven’t been able to drive until this year; but those restrictions don’t apply to Sophia. For Sylvester Johnson, the fact that a machine has been granted rights before humans raises crucial questions for humanist scholars and those who consider the nature of the soul.

In a talk titled “Necropolitics and the Singularity: Religion, Technology, and Human Futures in the National Security State” on Thursday, January 18, Johnson, a professor of religion and Director of the Center for Humanities at Virginia Tech, explored the connections between intelligent machines, 10th century Islamic philosophy, race as a matter of national security, and the ethical obligations of humanist scholars. In doing so, Johnson made the case that humanities scholars can re-imagine their roles in a world where the division between human and machine is increasingly blurry. Our work is not just analytical: humanities scholars must be integral to technology governance.

“The history of the category of the human is the history of excluding people from that category,” Johnson asserted. Massive amounts of resources, time, and political power are devoted to determining who gets to live and who must die, a concept that the philosopher and political theorist Achille Mbembe calls “necropolitics.”

Technological advancement is central to and often driven by this political management of death. For example, Johnson noted, Special Weapons and Tactics units (SWAT) were first developed in direct response to Civil Rights movements. As civil rights leaders pushed back on the state’s definition of “human,” which excluded people on the basis of race, police departments and the FBI reacted by militarizing police departments.

This history demonstrates that race is a political project, Johnson argued, with the goal of determining who is an enemy of the state and who is not. Race is a tool of the national security state, and can be used to determine who participates and lives, or who is excluded and dies.

Those of us who spend time thinking about the nature of the human have the opportunity to protect and expand our definitions of humanity and the rights associated with that idea. Johnson closed with a call for humanities scholars to get involved at the ground floor of technological development: in design, in applications, and especially in governance.

Johnson cited examples where the military or militarized police forces use intelligent machines to carry out the work of killing “enemies of the state.” Lockheed Martin has developed “fire-and-forget” missiles which can process visual data to attack targets without human direction; many police departments have military-grade weapons and surveillance drones and bring them to even nonviolent protests. “Intelligent machines are integral to contemporary militarism,” Johnson argues, and this raises new questions about what–or who–counts as human.

But machines don’t just exist to preserve national security and enforce boundaries of belonging in an increasingly militarized state. Neural networks can produce works of art or human faces never seen before by analyzing thousands of images. Will we respect the machines’ imagination, or co-opt the technology for surveillance?

Humans and machines are already enmeshed, and as we approach a point where humans and machines are indistinguishable, what are our ethical obligations? Humanist scholars of race, religion, technology, politics, and society must be integral to the shared governance of technology. “We shouldn’t limit ourselves to waiting for someone else to design futures that we can analyze… What about shaping those futures?” Johnson asked.

This talk was sponsored by the African and African American Studies Department, the UC Davis Humanities Institute Graduate Group in the Study of Religion, and the Sociology Department.

–Samantha Snively, DHI Humanities Correspondent and PhD candidate in English literature


This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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