Sylvester Johnson | Could a Robot Feel Pain? Race, Technology, and the Political Problem of Personhood

This is an Archive of a Past Event

Join us for the first Digital Horizons Lecture, a new series presented in partnership with the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA).

In this lecture, Sylvester A. Johnson interprets the work of Ibn Rushd ("Averroës"), the twelfth-century Islamic scholar of Andalusia who achieved renown as the "father" of secularism, in order to elucidate and heuristically challenge Ibn Rushd’s theory of the intellect as a power of the soul. Johnson leverages Rushd’s distinction between sensing and knowing in order to examine contemporary, sensory-driven AI technology (particularly brain-computer-interface architectures) as a uniquely generative problem of interest for humanists and technical experts alike. Of central importance is the sensation of pain, as it constitutes a phenomenon of embodiment, a category of human experience, and a political problem that has been implicated in histories of racial domination.

About the Speaker






Sylvester A. Johnson is Assistant Vice Provost for the Humanities and Executive Director of the “Tech for Humanity” initiative at Virginia Tech. He is the founding director of Virginia Tech’s new Center for Humanities, which is supporting human-centered research and humanistic approaches to the guidance of technology. Sylvester’s research has examined religion, race, and empire in the Atlantic world; religion and sexuality; national security practices; and the impact of intelligent machines and human enhancement on human identity and race governance. In addition to co-facilitating a national working group on religion and U.S. empire, Johnson led an Artificial Intelligence project that developed a successful proof-of-concept machine learning application to ingest and analyze a humanities text. He is the author of The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity (Palgrave 2004), 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 (Cambridge 2015), 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 (University of California 2017). He is a founding co-editor of the Journal of Africana Religions. He is currently producing a digital scholarly edition of an early English history of global religions and writing a book on human identity in an age of intelligent machines and human-machine symbiosis.

Co-sponsored by the Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity, the Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence, African & African American Studies, the Ethics, Society & Technology Hub, and the Department of Religious Studies

Made possible by support from the Office of the President