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Americans Find Future Tech Both Fascinating and Frightening

Americans Find Future Tech Both Fascinating and Frightening

Americans seem more eager to imagine distant future possibilities like time travel than to engage in those just around the corner, like driverless cars, suggests new research from Pew. Many of the futuristic ideas that Americans hold dear -- like flying personal cars a la Jetsons -- are relatively antique concepts that were dazzling New York World's Fair visitors 50 years ago.

By Richard Adhikari
04/17/14 1:08 PM PT

The pace of technological change is getting faster, and many Americans are optimistic about the results, although a sizable minority are concerned, Pew Research has found.

Nearly 60 percent think technological and scientific advances will make life in the future better, but 30 percent fear they will make life worse than it is today.

Sparking the most anxiety: designer babies; robots as primary caregivers for the ailing and elderly; personal and commercial drones flying U.S. skies; and implants or other wearable devices (such as Google Glass) that constantly give users information about the world around them.

"In many ways, this is a classic American story. We are generally optimistic about our ability to overcome obstacles and for things to work out well in the end, even as we envision many challenges to overcome on our way to getting there," Alex Smith, senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, told TechNewsWorld.

However, what the results show is that "we really have no idea what is coming and that there is a significant number of people that will resist the changes if they violate their privacy or religious beliefs," contended Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group -- or if they believe the changes will make them obsolete.

Princeton Data Source interviewed 1,001 people aged 18 and above throughout the United States Feb. 13-18 for the study, in English and Spanish, over landlines and cellphones.

Some Highlights of the Survey

More than 80 percent of the respondents expected that replacement human organs would be custom-grown in a lab within the next 50 years.

Computers will be able to create art that can't be distinguished from that produced by humans, 51 percent of the respondents expected.

While 50 percent said they didn't want to ride in a driverless car, 48 percent said they did.

More than 70 percent would not want to get a brain implant to improve their memory or mental capacity, but 26 percent would.

Forget about teleporting any time soon -- only about 40 percent of respondents expected scientists would develop the technology to teleport objects within the next half century.

However, many would like to experience a future much like the one envisioned in the cartoon series The Jetsons, complete with flying cars and personal spacecrafts.

They also would like time travel to become a reality -- and, despite the general opposition to creating designer babies, they desired health improvements that would extend human life or cure major diseases.

Groundhog Day Was Just the Beginning

"The thing that struck me about the report was how, in many ways, the visions people have of the technological future are surprisingly static," Patrick McCray, a professor in the history department of the University of California at Santa Barbara, told TechNewsWorld.

"If you put forth some of these technological possibilities to people at the 1964 World's Fair -- space colonization, smarter computers, driverless cars -- they wouldn't have been puzzling over them," McCray continued. "GM had an entire exhibit at the fair about driverless cars called 'Futurama.'"

As for computers generating art, Harold Cohen has been doing that for decades, McCray pointed out.

Differentiating Science From Technology

Science and technology are conflated throughout the survey, and they are "absolutely not the same thing," said McCray, who teaches undergraduate classes on the history of science and the history of technology.

Scientific research does not automatically lead to advances in technology, he pointed out.

The World Outside of Boffintopia

The survey ignored the deeper implications of changes in science and technology, McCray observed.

"There's very little thought given to what these changes mean in terms of societal implications," he explained. "Often, when people are asked to speculate as to what they think the world is going to be like, they very often default to thinking about science and technology, and very rarely do they think about social or political or economic changes."

The 30 percent or so of respondents who felt scientific and technological advancements would make things worse in the future constitute "a big group," Enderle told TechNewsWorld. They "will likely resist change for a variety of reasons," including religious dogma.


Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.


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