Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Expectations and Reactions Concerning Future Technology

For each of the following questions, consider your own answer. Then compare it with the results of a national poll of Americans conducted by the Pew Research Center and Smithsonian magazine. the questions are taken from the script used by the interviewers. Other questions and more detail on the answers are available in the report.

"Now I have a few questions about the future. Some books and movies portray a future where technology provides products and services that make life better for people. Others portray a future where technology causes environmental and social problems that make life worse for people. How about you? Over the long term, you think that technological changes will lead to a future where people’s lives are mostly better or to a future where people’s lives are mostly worse?"

The overall response is 59% think technology will mostly make people's lives better, while 30% think it will mostly make people's lives worse. To me, the notion that almost one-third of Americans think future technology is mostly a negative is startling and unwelcome. Men are more likely to think that technology will make lives mostly better (67%) than are women (51%). Those with a college education are more likely to think that technology will make lives mostly better (66%) than are those who have not completed a college education (56%).

Next, here are some other things that might happen in the next 50 years. For each, tell me if you think it would be a change for the better or a change for the worse if this happens. How about [INSERT ITEMS; RANDOMIZE]?
a. If lifelike robots become the primary caregivers for the elderly and people in poor health
b. If personal and commercial drones are given permission to fly through most U.S. airspace
c. If most people wear implants or other devices that constantly show them information about the world around them
d. If prospective parents can alter the DNA of their children to produce smarter, healthier, or more athletic offspring.

A majority believes that all four of these would be a change for the worse. The least unpopular is wearing implants or devices, with 53% saying it would be a change for the worse. For the other three, between 63-66% think it would be a change for the worse.

The report notes: "Men and women have largely similar attitudes toward most of these potential societal changes, but diverge substantially in their attitudes toward ubiquitous wearable or implantable computing devices. Men are evenly split on whether this would be a good thing: 44% feel that it would be a change for the better and 46% a change for the worse. But women overwhelmingly feel (by a 59%–29% margin) that the widespread use of these devices would be a negative development."

Next, here are some things that people might be able to do in the next 50 years. For each, tell me if this were possible, would YOU PERSONALLY do this... (First,) Would you [INSERT ITEMS; RANDOMIZE]?
a. Eat meat that was grown in a lab
b. Ride in a driverless car
c. Get a brain implant to improve your memory or mental capacity

This question struck me as a little odd, because the 50-year horizon seems pretty far away. The first hamburger grown from stem cells in a lab was served in August 2013 in London, and cost about $335,000. But the possibility of factory meat production at commercial prices may be only a few years away, and growing meat in a lab involves far less use of energy, water, and land than does agricultural production. Driverless cars have been on the roads on an experimental basis for a few years now.  While we don't yet have brain implants, we do have computers and smartphones that many of us use all the time in ways that may actually be altering how we use memory and mental capacity.

About half of people would be willing to try a driverless car--and it's interesting to me that about half say they would not.  From the report: "College graduates are particularly interested in giving driverless cars a try: 59% of them would do so, while 62% of those with a high school diploma or less would not. There is also a geographical split on this issue: Half of urban (52%) and suburban (51%) residents are interested in driverless cars, but just 36% of rural residents say this is something they’d find appealing."

People are more opposed to eating meat from a lab (78% would not) than they are to a memory brain implant (72% would not). Apparently, there are people out there who are willing to have brain implants if only they can eat a cow-sourced cheeseburger while doing it. College graduates stand out here as more willing to experiment, with 37% of them would be willing to get a performance-enhancing brain implant if given the chance, and 30% willing to try lab-grown meat. There may be a commentary here, both positive and negative, on what we are teaching college graduates.

Public attitudes toward new technology are of course malleable over time. Many people in the past might well have opposed having electrical wires running through homes, for example. But public attitudes shape attitudes toward support of research and development and whether new technologies will have to face extensive regulatory hurdles. Because new companies are chasing consumer dollars, people's attitudes determine which technologies will be pursued with greater intensity and, ultimately, what new technologies will succeed.