Johnson Details Dilemmas of Human-Machine Hybridization

By Miguel A. Novoa Cipriani - As humanity and technology grow more closely entwined, what political and philosophical questions should we be asking—and answering? In his January 18, 2018 talk titled "Necropolitics and the Singularity," Sylvester Johnson called on researchers in the social sciences and humanities to take the lead in the anticipatory governance of hybridization.

In October 2017, a humanoid robot named Sophia, created by the Hong Kong company Hanson Robotics, received Saudi Arabian citizenship—the first robot to ever receive such a status. The announcement was perceived by some as a mere publicity stunt.

Sylvester Johnson, inaugural director of the Virginia Tech Center for the Humanities, contended that this occurrence should receive serious attention. He explained that Sophia's citizenship raised numerous valid criticisms, including that she enjoyed more liberties than Saudi women and more legal rights than foreign migrants working in conditions of near-slavery.

"This is not going to be the last time a machine becomes the subject of concern over citizenship and rights," said Johnson.

Who killed Micah Johnson?

In July 2016, a remote-controlled military robot rigged with C-4 exploded and killed Micah Johnson, the perpetrator of a deadly shooting of police officers in Dallas, Texas. The robot, a Remotec ANDROS, remained operational after the blast. Micah Johnson's death marked the first time that the police used a robot to kill a suspect within national borders. 

It also raised the question of who was accountable: the police or the robot? The answer is not simple, Johnson said—particularly in light of the fact that military defense companies have, for over a decade, been engineering machines able to make their own decisions. He cited the example of missiles that can distinguish their target and even decide the optimal angle at which to strike.

“You don't have to control [the machine] anymore,” he said. “It is thinking. It understands.”

Race and national security

Johnson contended that Micah Johnson's death exemplifies police departments' tactical and material militarization, as well as a continuation of national security projects targeting African Americans.

According to Johnson, the police's militarization is tied to a national security paradigm—determining friends from foes—that has historically thrived in the perception of racial threats. He cited, as an example, the creation of the SWAT law enforcement unit in 1967. Since then, former military personnel and weapons have targeted raids on black communities that, while not a threat to the United States, challenged the sociopolitical status quo. “I don't think it was an accident that a black person was the first to be killed by a robot.”

Hybridization: menace or enhancement?

For Johnson, intelligent machines, monitoring our activities and enforcing collective control, pose a threat to humanity—one that increases as biological humans are increasingly “hybridized” with machines.

Though machine implants have some proven medical benefits, such as restoring mobility to people with paralysis, Johnson suggested that such enhancements are being taken far beyond medical purposes. For example, DARPA, a US defense agency, is working to mechanically enhance perfectly healthy soldiers to imbue them with superhuman qualities.  

This future is inevitable, Johnson warned. "The US is participating in a worldwide competition to develop machine-enhanced humans.”

Necropolitics and anticipatory governance

Summing up, Johnson called on the social sciences and humanities to take the lead in determining the connected future of technology and humanity. Scholarly insight is needed now more than ever he said, given the rising smart-tech dilemma over necropolitics—the power of dictating how people may live and die.

"We have to move beyond waiting for someone else to design futures," Johnson concluded. "What if we understood participating in the governance of technology as actually being fundamental to our role? Our scholarship and intellectual work actually has a critical linkage to governance."

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

Learn more about Sylvester Johnson.