Religion, the Cyborg and the Digital Future of Humanity

Sylvester Johnson

Sylvester Johnson, professor and director of the Center for Humanities at Virginia Tech, will give NC State’s annual Impact of Religion Lecture at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 6 in Daniels Hall, Room 434. His title is “Of Matter and the Spirit: Religion, the Cyborg and the Digital Future of Humanity.”

In 2017, Saudi Arabia became the first country to grant citizenship to an intelligent machine, a humanoid Artificial Intelligence (AI) robot named Sophia. Although widely discounted as a mere publicity maneuver, Sophia’s grant of citizenship is a harbinger of the political future of AI and humanity.  What is the boundary between people and things? And how will the digital future of humanizing things relate to the racial history of objectifying people?

In his lecture, Johnson will examine the ways digital technology is exposing the role of religion in shaping ostensibly secular views of matter. From Aristotle’s ancient conception of the soul to Ibn Rushd’s 12th-century theory of an immaterial intellect to the information theory underlying contemporary neural networks, scholars have long asked what things can do and how things are different from people. What is the relationship between matter and its putative other (spirit?). Can matter want and feel? Can things think? Could an AI feel pain? Can an assemblage of machine parts be a person? 

In response to these questions, Johnson will examine current AI research that combines humans with intelligent machines for applications ranging from medical therapy to military “super-soldiers.” He will interpret the relevance of these developments for scholars of religion and race. And he will discuss the prospect of a new racialization on the horizon, one that promises to expose the limits of the human as a coherent category while creating new possibilities for machines.

Johnson’s Impact of Religion Lecture, which is hosted by the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, is open to the entire university community.

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