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The Future is Coming… and Americans are Ambivalent


The Pew Research Foundation recently released poll results on American’s expectations regarding futuristic technology and whether they think it’s a good thing. And, for the most part, they’re not entirely sure. While 59% of respondents said that technology would make life in the future better, a full 30% thought people would become worse off, specifically due to futuretech (and not, say, global warming. In fact, according to Pew, Americans worry about global warming less than anyone else in the world.) It appears that there are some pretty clear positions on both ends of the spectrum. Among the tech enthusiasts many mentioned flying cars (finally!), time travel and immortality as technologies they would like to see. Also, 39% expected scientists to develop teleportation in the next 50 years. Shockingly, these techno-optimists were disproportionately grouped among men with college degrees (Silicon Valley meets Community meets Portlandia). 79% of that cohort fell into the ‘welcoming our robot overlords’ camp.

On the other hand, there’s that 30%. 11% said there was no futuretech they were interested in owning and 28% couldn’t really think of anything they’d like. A whopping 50% said they were not interested in riding in a self-driving car (I can’t see this one. Think of the road trips!). And while 33% thought that humans living on other planets was a possibility, a mere 19% thought we would eventually learn how to control the weather (someone tell the DOD. And the Chinese.)

What is perhaps more interesting is the response to ‘near term’ technological advances. As in, things we potentially have the technology to do already. The dreaded designer babies are back (again? Did they ever leave?), with 66% of respondents frowning on parents altering their potential children’s DNA to make them smarter. Making ourselves smarter wasn’t particularly popular either. 72% said they would not undergo a brain implant to make themselves smarter or able to learn faster and 53% thought it would be bad if we all started walking around in wearable tech that fed us information (so there, Google Glass). Although, knowing that Google just patented the design to transmit information directly to a contact lens makes me more sympathetic. If I nearly hit one more college student checkin Twitter in the middle of a crosswalk…

Oh, and robots are out. Personal and commercial drones were not popular (63% thought this would make the world and worse place), nor were medical robots to take care of the elderly or disabled (65%). Apparently, “Americans are equally united in the assertion that widespread use of robot caregivers would generally be a negative development.” And even among the comparatively ‘pro-tech’ 18 – 29 demographic a mere 4% said they would like a personal robot servant or cleaner. (This may be more of a reflection of the household habits of 18 – 29 year olds. In the 30 – 49 year old demographic this number doubled to 8%. Perhaps a mortgage and a lawn make you more willing to take help wherever you can find it.)

All in all, the numbers are actually more positive than negative. But not as strongly positive as one might expect from the global leader in science and technology, if America still qualifies for that title. Some may see this a reduction of the technological imperative that many observers decried in the latter half of the 20th century. But some might say America is simply losing its edge.