Future Technology Intrigues And Terrifies Americans At The Same Time, Pew Survey Finds

By Ben Wolford on April 17, 2014 4:14 PM EDT

Americans still really want flying cars. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Americans still really want flying cars. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Society never quite feels comfortable with the prospect of new technology. In a Pew Research Center survey out Thursday, most Americans said they don't want robots caring for the elderly, they don't want to be able to alter their children's DNA for the better, and they don't want personal and commercial drones flying in U.S. airspace.

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"In the long run, Americans are optimistic about the impact that scientific developments will have on their lives and the lives of their children — but they definitely expect to encounter some bumps along the way," Aaron Smith, a Pew senior researcher and author of the report, told the Chicago Tribune. "They are especially concerned about developments that have the potential to upend long-standing social norms around things like personal privacy, surveillance, and the nature of social relationships."

That's kind of like what people said about the printing press. And the telegraph. And satellites. The automation of systems removes these things from the domain of human activity. As Smithsonian magazine, which partnered with Pew in the survey, put it: "Most Americans view the technology-driven future with a sense of hope. They just don't want to live there."

The questions, asked of 1,001 people by phone, were designed to be big and science fiction-y. There were questions about teleportation and humans controlling the weather (most don't think we'll have either in 50 years), and there were questions about lab-grown organ transplants and computer-generated artistic masterpieces (those we'll have, most said). "Americans envision a range of probable outcomes when asked for their own predictions about whether some 'futuristic' inventions might become reality in the next half-century," the authors wrote.

When it comes to more realistic technology that already exists or will soon, Americans are unequivocally opposed to: Google Glass-like computer implants, robotic caregivers, drones overhead, and pre-birth DNA alteration. "A majority of Americans feel that it would be a change for the worse if those technologies become commonly used," according to the survey. On the other hand, given one open-ended wish, most people said they want flying cars, time travel, and longer lifespans — all potentially controversial, yet not even close to actually being developed.

It seems proximity to a new technology makes it scarier for the people confronted by it. But then once it's here, it's usually not a big deal anymore. And besides, there's one thing that the printing press, telegraph, and satellites all have in common, other than being initially feared. They happened anyway.

Above photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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