Blake Lecture Highlights Ethical Questions about AI

April 29, 2022

Author: Andrew Crislip, Ph.D.

Professor Andrew Crislip provides a recap of April 7th's Blake Lecture, "Will Robots Feel Pain?" featuring Sylvester Johnson, Ph.D.

Sylvester Johnson

For nearly thirty years, the History Department’s Blake Lectures have brought leading scholars in the history of Christianity to VCU, a series that honors the long career of Professor William (Bill) Blake at VCU, along with Bill and Miriam’s place in Richmond’s academic and faith communities. This year saw the return to campus for the Lecture as the first in-person departmental event since COVID changed the way we live and work.

Professor Sylvester Johnson joined us to deliver the 28th Blake Lecture, reflecting on the pressing question, “Will Robots Feel Pain?” Johnson is the founding director of the Center for the Humanities at Virginia Tech, and previously taught at Northwestern University, Indiana University, and Florida A&M. His early work focused on nineteenth-century African American religion, and more recently has moved into the intersections of the history of race, religion, and technology, investigating religion and law enforcement after 9/11, and now investigating what light the histories of race and religion can shed on the ethical questions facing society with the approach of artificial intelligence and increasingly human-like robots. The lecture made clear the continuing importance of the history of Christianity, not least the dialogues between medieval Christian and Muslim philosophers, for current debates about ethics and public policy.

Next year’s Blake Lecture, scheduled for April 13, 2023, will be given by Randall Stephens, Professor of American Studies at the University of Oslo. A specialist in American religious history, Professor Stephens will speak about the contentious rise of Christian rock and roll, from its roots in Pentecostal worship to the billion dollar industry it is today.