US views of technology and the future

19 Apr

It’s relatively easy for me to accept and adapt to new technology; I’m a lifelong early adopter and if budget allowed, my house would have more gadgets than the Batcave. But what about mainstream America?  Pew Research just released the results of their survey on how we view science and technology now and in a fifty year horizon (link to pdf of full report).  The results aren’t terribly surprising, but they do show how ambivalent we are in this period of rapid change.

To start, a few points from their findings:


  • 66% think it would be a change for the worse if prospective parents could alter the DNA of their children to produce smarter, healthier, or more athletic offspring.
  • 65% think it would be a change for the worse if lifelike robots become the primary caregivers for the elderly and people in poor health.
  • 63% think it would be a change for the worse if personal and commercial drones are given permission to fly through most U.S. airspace.
  • 53% of Americans think it would be a change for the worse if most people wear implants or other devices that constantly show them information about the world around them. Women are especially wary of a future in which these devices are widespread.

As an anthropologist, I’m relieved to see that support for eugenics is still in the minority.  On the second point, I think we’ll see robots being more and more involved in healthcare, but not as primary caregivers. I think it was in one of Sherry Turkle’s books where it was suggested that assistive devices like I wrote about here would be a more effective way to go: you could still have a human care provider, but one with wearable robotics to make the manual tasks easier.  I agree with skepticism about drones. One of my former colleagues at [big Internet company] has a camera-equipped drone that he uses for simply amazing photographs that would otherwise be impossible, from drone-photographed selfies and groupies to shots like a panorama of cherry blossoms taken while hovering low above the Tidal Basin on DC. Gorgeous. I trust him personally, but I can’t say I want to look out my window and see commercial drones whizzing by. We have enough problems with our military drones, including an attack in Yemen today.

I’m in the minority about implants and wearable devices; I’ve been waiting for my implant for years now!  I wonder what is behind the increased wariness of women on that topic. Fear of being pulled in more directions at all time by social media and messaging? Annoyance at others who are distracted by devices now? Distaste at unfashionable wearables? Or, are they thinking of things like Google Glass and the notion of being recorded without their knowledge? (Personal note: On a trip to Disneyland in February, I noticed a couple people wearing Google Glass and a few wearing these chest-mounted camera harnesses. The harnesses struck me as far more creepy.)

An interesting divide on lab-grown flesh turned up in the data.  81% of respondents believe that within 50 years, we will have lab-grown human organs for implant.  But would they eat meat grown in a lab? Only 20% said yes. Hmm.  We expect to have lab-grown flesh put into our bodies to replace failing organs, but we won’t put it into our bodies via our mouths? That’s fascinating.  I understand the queasiness and feel a little of it myself if I try to envision it.  I suggest reading Eating Animalsby Jonathan Safran Foer to explore the ethics of current meat production methods (or the record, I’m a devoted omnivore) and Oryx and Crakeand the rest of the MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood to consider a fictional account of genetic modification and lab-grown meat, particularly the ChickieNobs.  ::shudder::

What do we want?  Improvements in transportation options, health, and time travel. Sounds good to me!  If we could channel a percentage of time spent on celebrity gossip into science, we might get some of that before I’m too old to care.

(c) Paul Sizer

(c) Paul Sizer:

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Posted by on April 19, 2014 in In the News, Research


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