People are Part of the Equation

RobotSurvey results from the Pew Research Group were announced today that summarize their findings about how Americans feel about our scientific future. The survey asked questions in several areas such as how people feel about technology changes and which changes people believe will be coming.

Anyone who follows my blog knows that I am a bit of a futurist in that I think technology is going to be a very positive force in human life during the rest of this century. There are amazing technologies under development that will transform our lives. Technological upgrades are so common any more that I don’t know that the average citizen stops and thinks about how technology has already changed our lives. I saw guys watching NCAA basketball games on their cellphones a few week ago and I’m sure they didn’t appreciate how many kinds of technology had to come together to make that happen and also how many billions of dollars of investments had to be made in cellular networks. In my experience, Americans have already been trained to take new technology for granted.

Which made me a little surprised by some of the responses in the survey. For example, only 59% of the people surveyed thought that the technology changes we are going to see over the next decades will make life better. A surprising 30% felt they would make people worse off than they are today. I find this interesting in that far more than 59% of us now own and use a smartphone which is one of the more recent manifestations of new technology, and yet many people still fundamentally fear new technology

And this is why I say you can never take the human equation out of planning. There are going to be technological breakthroughs that the public will reject, no matter how good they are for the majority of mankind. Let’s look at a few of the technologies that people are most skeptical about:

  • 66% of respondents say it would be a change for the worse if parents were able to manipulate the genes of their children to make them smarter, healthier or more athletic.
  • 65% think it is a bad idea to have robots become the primary caregiver for the elderly or people in poor health.
  • 63% think it is a bad idea to allow personal and commercial drones into US airspace.
  • 53% think it’s a bad idea if people wear implants that let shows them information on the world around them.

The survey also asked if people would be willing to try some new inventions that are now on the horizon.

  • 50% of people say they are not interested in trying a driverless car.
  • Only 20% of people are willing to try meat grown in a lab.
  • 26% of Americans say they would get a brain implant if it would improve their memory or mental capacity.

The survey also asked what future invention people would most like to own. Over 31% of young people were interested in a wide variety of ways to make transportation easier such as a flying car, a self-driving car or a personal spacecraft. But middle-aged people were more pragmatic and a number of them wanted a robot that could help with housework. There were a few questions on the survey that everybody agreed with. For example, over 80% believe that within a few years that doctors will be able to grow organs for people who needs organ transplants.

This kind of survey tells us a lot more about people’s hopes and fears than it does about the various technologies. People are very distrustful of many new technologies and it has always been that way. Generally there are some early adopters that try the newest stuff and take some of the mystery out of it for everybody else. Not every new technology becomes popular, but the kinds of major technologies covered by this survey are likely to become widespread once they become affordable. But the survey reminds us that we can’t assume that any technology will be automatically accepted because people are part of that equation.

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