A few months ago I wrote a post about wearable tech and the societal impact it might have, both upon the wearer of said tech and the people around them. In it, I mentioned that early adopters of these items might be ridiculed and stigmatized by those who did not fully understand the devices and what applications they might have. Now, a new survey by the Pew Research Center has shown my prediction to be accurate. More than half of the people they surveyed said that they believed that wearable tech would have a negative impact upon society, and women seemed especially wary of these items, with the huge majority of those surveyed responding negatively to the idea of items like Google Glass. However, these questions were only a small part of a much larger study. Pew, in conjunction with Smithsonian magazine, recently interviewed 1,001 Americans across the country, asking them for their opinion about various future technologies, most of which are expected to be here rather soon. The results of their study are fascinating, and the implications of their results are certainly interesting to ponder.
Overall, the results were fairly positive. 59% of responders said that they believed that technological and scientific innovations would make their lives better, while only 30% believed that these inventions would actually make their lives worse. Perhaps the most intriguing finding of the study is the fact that most respondents seemed very optimistic and happy about long term technological and scientific goals but pessimistic or guarded about those which are currently within our grasp. When asked which future technologies the respondents would most wanted to see they named (in order) flying vehicles, time machines and dramatic health innovations which would significantly extend life and cure major diseases. 4 out of 10 surveyed adults between the ages of 18-29 said that they believed that humans would colonize another planet within 50 years. These technologies are long term pursuits. While we might have flying vehicles eventually (though regulating their travel patterns would probably be a nightmare) and human life expectancy is increasing, these kinds of innovations are probably not going to be here nearly as soon as the technologies actually included on the survey. As for time machines, I’ve seen enough movies about them to know that they’re somewhat unfeasible, even as a long term goal. And yet, respondents generally felt far more optimistic about these technologies than they did about most of those which are currently being developed. Apparently, their vision of an ideal future is largely not the one we are actively working to create.
As we speak, companies like Amazon and Google are incorporating the usage of drones into their future business plans. Supposedly, these drones could deliver items more quickly and accurately than their human counterparts. However, only 22% of those surveyed thought they would be better off if automated flying drones were allowed to travel within our airspace. Driverless cars are being built with the intention of making transportation quicker, more efficient and less environmentally harmful, but 50% of those surveyed said that they felt driverless cars would be more a detriment than a help. Japanese designers are currently working to design lifelike, hyper-intelligent robots to assist the elderly and feeble, something which alarmed 65% percent of responders. Finally, 72% of responders said that they would not consider getting a brain implant to augment their memory, intelligence or general knowledge. These are innovations which are coming, and though we’re probably a few decades away from a time where they will be used regularly by a large percentage of the population they will probably begin to be adopted by some fairly soon.
The more closely you read the survey conducted by Pew the more complexities you discover. For example, college graduates more likely than the average responder to believe that usable human organs will soon be grown in labs but less likely to believe that a computer, working alone, will be able to produce art indistinguishable from that of a human within 50 years. Almost 40% of those surveyed believe that scientists will have developed viable teleportation technology within the span of half a century, but only 19% believed that scientists would be able to control the weather within that same span of time. What does this all mean? Well, it’s impossible to reduce all of the findings of this survey down to one sentence, but I do think that the survey does reveal one major thing: American adults are generally cautious or even frightened of future tech. We say that we want innovations like these; that we want technology to continue to progress, but if we had the opportunity today, right now, to ride on a flying motorcycle or travel in a time machine how many of us would have the guts to take it? We can romanticize future tech when it’s far away, but when it starts to arrive we begin to get nervous. A decade ago we dreamed of insane things like robots flying through the air to deliver us packages. Now those robots are nearly here, and we want them to keep their distance.
The fact is that any major new technology will be feared until it is understood. That’s the truth behind nearly every response on this survey, whether we’re talking about Google Glass, driverless cars or brain implants. Before any of these technologies can be widely adopted they will need to be trusted, and that will take some time. Personally, I find the concept of riding in a driverless car terrifying, but the actual experience of traveling in one will almost certainly be radically different than the image I have in my head. However, until I am convinced that my image is wrong I will continue to see it, and so will thousands of others. Every single invention created since the beginning of time has been built with one purpose in mind: to make another task easier and simpler to perform. We want the convenience and ease that these innovations will bring, but we also want to maintain the status quo and hang on to our security. These warring impulses wrestle inside our minds, simultaneously causing us to dream of an elaborate future and recoil in fear when elements of that future begin to emerge.
We are wary of advanced technology because we fear its lack of humanity. How can we trust a robot to properly care for an elderly person or drive us to the store or fly safely through the air all on its own, almost entirely without human intervention? Yet in many ways we’ve already made that leap. We don’t distrust a pacemaker’s ability to keep our heart beating or a neonatal intensive care unit’s ability to keep our newborn child breathing. We fear that these items will malfunction, that they will not prove to be an adequate solution to the problem they’re attempting to relieve, but it’s not their inhumanity we fear, it’s their lack of perfection. These are, in the most basic way, the same concerns we have when we hire a lawyer to represent us in court or a driver to take us to the airport. Someday we will come to fear drones and driverless cars in this same way. The concern won’t be getting into a driverless car but the fact that it could malfunction, that something could go wrong. For many of us, that’s as brave as we’ll ever get, but if we can arrive at that new fear, as odd as the idea might seem, we’ll have proved our courage.