Humanizing the Future in a Digital World
A College of Humanities symposium centers on the importance of the human experience in a technology-driven world.

By Eric Swedlund, UA College of Humanities
May 16, 2018

The University of Arizona College of Humanities is exploring the intersection of technology and humanities, focusing on the vital role of human context and perspective in guiding digital innovations such as big data, artificial intelligence and robotics.

Launching this week, the Dorrance Lecture Series brings together faculty, students and outside guests to examine the relationship between so-called disruptive technologies and human cultures. The first symposium, "Humanities Innovators in a Tech World," is Thursday and Friday in the Integrated Learning Center, Room 120, from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

"As technological advances bring us closer to a digital future, the humanities become more important than ever in helping to understand what makes us human, especially as those same technological advances bring greater connectivity to all people across the globe," says Alain-Philippe Durand, dean of the College of Humanities.

In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the fusion of technologies is blurring the differences between the physical, digital and biological. Advances such as artificial intelligence, robotics, machine learning, genetic algorithms, collaborative commerce, additive manufacturing, spatial computing and genetic engineering will impact the future, in ways both predictable and unpredictable. The humanities are essential in providing context and understanding of those changes, Durand says.

"Our expertise in multilingualism, cultures, literatures and religions already provides a framework to understanding both the diversity in our world and what humanity has in common," Durand says. "The Dorrance Series creates a new dialogue about the ways human skills, human knowledge and human ingenuity can make the most of these technological breakthroughs."

This week's inaugural symposium brings together outside thought leaders and College of Humanities faculty to present on a range of topics, from machine learning to poetry to astronomy. Sponsored by the Dorrance Scholarship Programs, the event is free and open to the public. 

Speakers include:

  • Kevin Hainline, Steward Observatory postdoctoral researcher: "Why We Study the Universe: From the Big Bang to You"
  • Kevin Shaw, CTO and founder, Algorithmic Intuition: "Exponential Technology, Machine Learning and Their Impact on the 21st Century"
  • Andra Keay, managing director of Silicon Valley Robotics: "Being an Older Woman in a Room Full of Robots"
  • Scott Hartley, author of the 2017 best-seller "The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World": "Humanizing Our Technology"
  • Catie Cuan, performer, choreographer and technologist: "'Dancing' Robots: Choreographing Humans and Machines"

  • Tyler Meier, executive director, UA Poetry Center, College of Humanities: "Attention and Abstraction: Poetry in the Digital Age"

"These speakers specialize in thinking about the relationships between science and technology and the human experience," Durand says. "They'll provoke important discussion and engage with our faculty and students to help them think in new ways about how humanity can and will be influenced by technology as well as the role we must play in bringing our expertise to these challenges."

The Dorrance Scholarship Programs sponsors not only the new series but is a longtime supporter of students, awarding scholarships since 1999 to first-generation undergraduate college students in Arizona and Hawaii. Bennett and Jacquelynn Dorrance earned bachelor's degrees in French from the UA in 1969 and were named the College of Humanities Alumni of the Year in 2012.

"Education in the humanities has served our students remarkably well. Knowing that today's college students will encounter a future transformed by technology, we want to ensure that they also have the critical skills and understanding from the humanities to make sense of that future," says James Hensley, executive director of the Dorrance Scholarship Programs.

In addition to the new series on humanities and technology, the College of Humanities also created in 2015 a study-abroad program in Italy for the Dorrance Scholars every fall semester, through the Department of Religious Studies and Classics.

"Jacquelynn and Bennett Dorrance have lived a life rooted in the humanities. They share with us the conviction that the humanities' skills are increasingly valuable in the new global economy precisely because technology has brought the world closer together," Durand says.

Those skills — intercultural competence, language and communication skills, adaptability and problem solving — were identified in a 2016 report by the World Economic Forum as some of the most in-demand by employers in today's global workforce.  

"There is a momentum for the humanities. With the help of donors, alumni and friends, such as Mr. and Mrs. Dorrance, the College of Humanities is answering President (Robert C.) Robbins' call to play an important role in the new strategic plan that will make the UA a leader within the Fourth Industrial Revolution and beyond," Durand says.

Extra info


Dorrance Lecture Series: "Humanities Innovators in a Tech World"


Integrated Learning Center, Room 120


Thursday, May 17, and Friday, May 18, from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Free and open to the public.


Resources for the media

Eric Swedlund

UA College of Humanities