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John Templeton Foundation Awards GTU’s Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences Nearly Half-Million Dollar Grant to Advance Critical Research on “Virtuous Artificial Intelligence”

BERKELEY, CA – July 18, 2022 – The Graduate Theological Union (GTU) is pleased to announce that the John Templeton Foundation (JTF) has awarded the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS) a $445,000, three-year grant beginning in July 2022 to take forward critical research on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its ethical implications. The project, titled “Virtuous AI? Artificial Intelligence, Cultural Evolution, and Virtue,” seeks to explore several core questions: How and to what extent will AI influence the evolution of human culture and virtue? Can AI assist humans in the acquisition of virtue? Is AI itself capable of virtue? If so, are those virtues shared with or distinct from human virtues? 

“Our global society is experiencing rapid advancements in AI technology, which is becoming deeply integrated into our personal and communal life. This development is compelling many to ask critical ethical questions about AI’s potential and its relationship with humanity’s future,” said GTU President Uriah Kim. “We are proud to have CTNS leading this investigation, offering a robust history of ethical, philosophical, and theological inquiry, paired with cutting-edge research into this burgeoning topic.” 

The increasing integration of AI into the landscape of lived human experience and culture ranges from AI technology in smartphones and autonomous vehicles, to incorporating AI directly into society, such as intelligent machines active throughout the workforce and in homes. The extent of this integration raises fundamental questions about human culture, evolution, and virtue, which will provide the conceptual framework for CTNS’s project. An interdisciplinary, global network of scholars from AI scientists to humanities researchers will collaborate to carry out the project, coordinated and led by Dr. Braden Molhoek, Director of CTNS and Ian G. Barbour Assistant Professor of Theology, Science, Ethics, and Technology. 

According to Molhoek, “Focusing on virtue furthers CTNS, the GTU, and JTF’s shared goals of having a project that is interdisciplinary and multi-faith. Roughly 50 scholars have agreed to participate in the program, representing voices from Christianity, Judaism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. It also expands the scientific and technological issues with which the Center has traditionally engaged, including physics, cosmology, evolutionary biology, and genetics, with additional work in the areas of neurosciences, environmental sciences, and mathematics.” 

As part of its multi-year project, CTNS will hold three interdisciplinary online public research conferences in 2023, hosted in Berkeley, Seoul, and Rome. CTNS will encourage scholars from underrepresented regions and perspectives to participate as it engages with researchers from a variety of geographic, philosophical, and theological positions on diverse topics related to AI and virtue. Select participants will be asked to expand upon their presented papers for publication in three edited volumes, summarizing this comprehensive, interdisciplinary research. CTNS intends to leverage the accumulated learning from these conferences and publications into the creation of new GTU course offerings in the coming years. 

“GTU students will have first access to cutting-edge research at the intersection of technology and ethics, thanks to CTNS and this global research project,” said Dr. Jennifer Davidson, GTU Dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs, a role she began on July 1. “The GTU continues to be a place where new ground is broken in the work of interreligious and interdisciplinary scholarship, as it has for the past 60 years.” 

More information on this project can be found at www.ctns.org.  

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About the John Templeton Foundation 

Founded in 1987, the John Templeton Foundation supports research and catalyzes conversations that inspire people with awe and wonder. The John Templeton Foundation funds work on subjects ranging from black holes and evolution to creativity, forgiveness, and free will. The Foundation also encourages civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, theologians, and the public at large. Its aspiration is to help people create lives of meaning and purpose and to become a global catalyst for discoveries that contribute to human flourishing. 

With an endowment of $3.8 billion and annual giving of approximately $140 million, the Foundation ranks among the 25 largest grantmaking foundations in the United States. Headquartered outside Philadelphia, the Foundation’s philanthropic activities have engaged all major faith traditions and extended to more than 57 countries around the world. 

About the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences 

Founded in 1981 as an Affiliate of the GTU by Dr. Robert John Russell, the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences promotes the creative mutual interaction between theology and the natural sciences through research, teaching, and public service. CTNS became an Academic Center of the GTU in 2016. Upon Dr. Russell’s retirement in June of 2022, Dr. Braden Molhoek became Director of CTNS. Under Dr. Molhoek’s leadership, CTNS will continue to pursue new frontiers at the intersections of theology, science, ethics, and technology. Most recently, CTNS has been exploring issues of astrobiology, astrotheology, artificial intelligence, and transhumanism.  

About the Graduate Theological Union 

Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) is a world leader in the study of religion and theology, as well as a vibrant home for spiritual exploration through online learning opportunities with global reach. 

Spanning a robust array of interreligious and interdisciplinary perspectives, the GTU’s centers of study and wider consortium offer programs that lead to groundbreaking scholarship, with alumni who become thought leaders in their fields. We offer innovative approaches to advanced study, driven by our core commitment to empowering those with a passion for serving others, as inspired by the world’s many spiritual paths, faiths, and cultural traditions. 

At its heart, the GTU’s educational work is brought to life by a unique instructional approach that encourages dynamic encounters and exchange about the world’s wisdom traditions and is inspired by the transformative power of spiritual study and reflection to generate profound personal, social, environmental, and spiritual healing to create just and peaceful communities worldwide. 

Discover more about our programs and the work of our alumni and community at gtu.edu