The technologies may be new, but wisdom in understanding their significance to humanity has been accruing since at least the 12th century.

It was then that the Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd distinguished “sensing” from “feeling” as a crucial point in a larger argument for why humans should be considered fundamentally different from other living entities.

“Ibn Rushd would allow that although trees might sense light and turn toward it in their growth, they could not feel love or happiness, as he argued this was a uniquely human capacity,” said Sylvester Johnson, director of the Virginia Tech Center for Humanities. “His insights carry relevance today, as we wrestle with questions of ‘humanized’ artificial intelligence and human exceptionalism within the context of intelligent machines.”

In the spirit of such exploration, the Henry Luce Foundation’s Theology Program has awarded the Center for Humanities a $500,000 grant to support “Future Humans, Human Futures,” a project that combines religion, ethics, and technology to tackle fundamental questions of what it means to be human in a technological age.

The three-year project will enable researchers in religion and theology to engage with experts in technology and innovation domains, such as artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and cybernetics. These experts will convene during a series of summer research institutes to learn how technology is affecting an ever-increasingly complex world and to advance their scholarship in light of the growing need for human-centered guidance.

“We are very excited for this unique opportunity to partner with the Luce Foundation to advance research in religion, theology, and technology ethics,” said Johnson, a professor of religion and culture who will serve as principal investigator of the project. “The human-centered challenges that technology is raising require new directions and greater inclusivity in the scholarship addressing difficult questions about technology’s public impact. Luce’s bold and game-changing generosity to support this effort is something we should all celebrate.”

Johnson noted that the overarching goal of the project will be to promote new directions in research by national and global humanities scholars with expertise in theology and religion. The project will also seek 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.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the grant further incorporates support of immigrant farm laborers through English-as-a-second-language conversations, as an effort to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on essential workers.

The grant will also make possible a timely partnership between the Center for Humanities and Do Good X, an accelerator designed for early-stage social entrepreneurs who are passionate about developing businesses that accomplish good in the world. Do Good X will help lead the summer institute workshops and will collaborate with Virginia Tech to produce public summits that engage a broad audience in fostering the ethical guidance of technology.

“We are pleased to support this important new project at Virginia Tech’s Center for Humanities,” said Jonathan VanAntwerpen, program director of the Luce Foundation. “Emphasizing the inclusion of scholars from underrepresented groups, and seeking to move beyond traditional academic boundaries, the project will establish new directions in humanistic engagement with emerging technology by examining what it means to be human in a technological age.

“Research encouraged and amplified through the project’s work will focus in particular on the role of technology in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” VanAntwerpen added, “including attention to data, security, and surveillance, and to the impact of technology on religious communities during the pandemic.”

Johnson, who also serves as executive director of Tech for Humanity, a university-wide initiative focused on human-centered approaches to technology and innovation, has long focused on the future of humanity in the age of intelligent machines.

“From here on, major decisions shaping our society will increasingly be made by algorithmic machines working in concert with people,” he wrote in a recent College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences magazine essay. “As a result, those who are already highly vulnerable to structural systems of inequality on the basis of race, gender identity, disability, and wealth will face greater marginalization unless we transform how technology works in a precarious society. Such profound risk should motivate us to recognize that human-centered leadership of technology is not optional; it’s imperative.”

The Henry Luce Foundation seeks to enrich public discourse by promoting innovative scholarship, cultivating new leaders, and fostering international understanding. Established in 1936 by Henry R. Luce, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Time Inc., the Luce Foundation advances its mission through grantmaking and leadership programs in the fields of Asia, higher education, religion and theology, art, and public policy.