Many Americans who see technology as changing life for the better don't seem ready to embrace commercial drones, robot caregivers and wearable computing devices such as Google Glass. A new survey shows certain technologies remaining controversial despite a majority of respondents having an optimistic view of technology's long-term impact on life.
The technological optimists outnumbered the pessimists in the random sampling of 1,001 U.S. adults carried out by the Pew Research Center and Smithsonian Magazine. Almost 60 percent said technology will lead to better lives for people in the future versus 30 percent who believed life will be worse. But even a majority of technological optimists were skeptical of controversial technologies such as commercial drones, wearable computing devices, robot caregivers and designer babies.
Wearable devices such as Google Glass fared the best in terms of public opinion among the four controversial technologies—even if a majority of people surveyed still viewed smart glasses negatively. About 53 percent of Americans thought life would be worse if "most people wear implants or other devices that constantly show them information about the world around them." (Men were roughly divided on the idea, but women felt significantly more negative toward wearable devices.)
More Americans felt pessimistic about the idea of personal and commercial drones being given "permission to fly through most U.S. airspace," with 63 percent saying it would be a change for the worse. Such results suggest the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and commercial drone businesses may face an uphill battle in easing public concerns, even after legal and regulatory reforms go through.
The idea of robot caregivers replacing humans in caring for elderly people or patients drew a pessimistic response among 65 percent of respondents—results that held up among Americans of all ages. Such public opinions may prove very different in countries such as Japan and South Korea that have already begun experimenting with robot caregivers for their rapidly aging populations.
Americans took a similarly negative view toward the idea of prospective parents changing the DNA of their children to make them smarter, healthier or more athletic. The designer baby scenario led to 66 percent of respondents saying it would change things for the worse, whereas just 26 percent said it could be a good thing.
Unsurprisingly, Americans who took a more optimistic view of technological changes were more likely than the pessimists to view the controversial technologies in a positive way—a difference of 2:1 in the cases of personal drones and wearable devices. But a majority of the optimists still thought the four controversial technologies would change life for the worse.
The new survey also asked Americans about their interest in personally trying out technologies such as driverless cars, brain implants to improve memory or mental capacity, and willingness to eat lab-grown meat. Driverless cars such as those being developed by Google and mainstream auto manufacturers attracted the most interest with 48 percent saying they would like to ride such cars if given the opportunity. Just 26 percent of Americans said they'd get the brain implant, and only 20 percent said they would try tasting lab-grown meat.
Travel-related inventions such as flying cars or bikes, personal spacecraft, self-driving cars, teleportation devices, jet packs and hover cars or hover boards topped the technological wish list of 19 percent of Americans in the survey—a category most popular among young adults at 31 percent. Time travel and health-related inventions both drew 9 percent in the question about what futuristic invention Americans would most like to have. But 11 percent of Americans said there were no futuristic inventions they wanted or had interest in, and over one quarter (28 percent) said they weren't sure.
Last but not least, the survey asked respondents to peer into their crystal ball and predict which futuristic inventions might become a reality in the next 50 years. Lab-grown organs built by 3-D printing and other technologies drew the most in the confidence vote with 81 percent of Americans saying such custom-built organs would become a reality.
The public was more evenly split on the idea of computers matching human capabilities in creating art such as music, novels or paintings in the next half-century, with just 51 percent saying it would happen. Popular science fiction themes such as teleportation and colonization of other planets drew even less confidence from respondents. Just 39 percent thought teleportation could become a reality, and only 33 percent expected to see long-term colonies on other planets.
Surprisingly, just 19 percent of Americans had confidence in the prediction of humans being able to control the weather over the next 50 years. Few researchers would probably have the hubris to promise total weather control, but research ranging from rainmaking schemes to studies of how wind turbines can weaken hurricanes suggest that humans can imperfectly affect some aspects of weather.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.