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Will Robots Feel Pain? The Politics of Race, the Governance of Technology, and the Future of Humanity

April 23 at 2:00 pm

data feminism

From Aristotle’s ancient conception of the soul, to Ibn Rushd’s twelfth-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 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 are now being 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 considering the racial history of so-called fetishism, Johnson gives historical depth to contemporary developments in cybernetics and discusses the prospect of new frameworks for humans and non-humans that may create new possibilities of machine life.

(*This talk is also the keynote of the UF Intersections Symposium and is currently planned as a live event. Please check back to see if the event will be moved online.)


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 guide technology. Johnson’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. 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 currently writing a book on human identity in an age of intelligent machines and human-machine symbiosis.

This event is part of “Part II: Data and Democracy,” a multi-year series that responds to current challenges to rational public debate. Following Part I of the series in 2019-20 entitled “Race and the Promise of Participation,” which examined contemporary institutions that define public life, the 2020-21 speaker series turns to the question of how new technologies and the algorithms underlying ‘big data’ shape human experience, communication, and representation. This year’s talks examine how race and racism, equity and inequality, and gender shape and are produced by technological systems. From drone warfare and corporate data, to surveillance systems and robots, they reveal the human values and ideas embedded in technological advances. Over the course of two semesters, speakers in this series will call us to be thoughtful and deliberate when allowing artificial intelligence entry into our public spaces.

UF Series Funders and Co-Sponsors:

Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere (Rothman Endowment); College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; Chief Diversity Officer; Informatics Institute; Bob Graham Center for Public Service; Center for Latin American Studies; African American Studies Program; Center for Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies Research


April 23
2:00 pm
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Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere
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Reitz Union Grand Ballroom
686 Museum Rd
Gainesville, FL 32611 United States
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