Does America Want a Technology Revolution?

A new survey takes a snapshot of America’s outlook on technology, from robot servants and eating lab-grown meat to time-travel and curing cancer.

by / April 17, 2014
In the 2012 movie Robot and Frank, Frank is sliding into dementia, so his son and daughter bring him a robot to become his servant, nurse and companion. In a Pew Research Center released April 17, 65 percent of respondents thought that robots becoming the primary caregivers for the elderly would be a change for the worse. Hallowell House/via

The American public is excited about the future of technology, but it's also worried about the growing pains that may be necessary to reach that future, according to a new survey.

That survey, published April 17 by the Pew Research Center, took the outlook of 1,001 American adults from a wide demographic pool to provide a picture of how the nation feels about technology today. Titled U.S. View of Technology and the Future: Science in the next 50 years, the survey was conducted for use in the May issue of Smithsonian magazine, which will look at the interplay between popular science fiction and actual developments in science.

A majority of those surveyed said they believe technology will improve society over the next 50 years. About 59 percent were optimistic about technological advancements, while 30 percent said they think the changes from technology will make life worse for people. Pew Senior Researcher Aaron Smith shared with Government Technology some of what the survey's key findings mean for the world.

“The broad takeaway from this, and I think it’s applicable to the government work force, is that in the long-run, Americans are really optimistic about the impact that scientific developments are going to have on their lives and the lives of their children,” Smith said. “At the same time, there are a lot of short-term changes that are going to really up-end some longstanding social norms around personal privacy or notions of surveillance or the nature of social relationships, and people are nervous about that. […] That’s a theme we see in a lot of the work we do.”

In general, those with more education and higher incomes tended to take a more optimistic view of technology than others. Opinion in this area showed almost no deviation across age groups – older adults were just as likely as young adults to take a positive outlook on technology. One outstanding result was the deviation between men and women in this area – 73 percent of men surveyed had an optimistic outlook on technology’s impact on society, while just 59 percent of women held a positive view.

“At first it seemed odd to us, but then we dug into it and realized that it was more of a class story as opposed to a gender story,” Smith said. “Our theory on that is that in many instances [male college graduates] are the people who have really benefitted from the previous 10 to 20 years of technological advances, so they’re the winners of the scientific and technological developments of this era. The winners of today expect that they’re going to be the winners of tomorrow.” Men and women were found to be similar across most demographics, Smith said, but among upper-class and highly-educated men, there’s a huge spike in technological optimism that throws the numbers off.

Statistics showing the absence of women in technology-related fields supports Smith’s hypothesis. Today, American women are more highly educated than men, women taking 57 percent of undergraduate degrees in the country. But in the field of computer and information science, women represent just 18 percent of those students who complete an undergraduate degree.

Beyond the optimism people have for technology in the long-term, the survey also identified areas where people are worried about short-term changes that technology could bring. As for giving prospective parents the ability to alter the DNA of their children, 66 percent said it would be a change for the worse. As for robots becoming the primary caregivers for the elderly, 65 percent thought it would be a change for the worse. As for the adoption of drones in U.S. airspace, a change that could come as early as 2015, 63 percent said it would be a change for the worse. As for device implants that would constantly show the user information about the world around them, 53 percent said it would be a change for the worse, with female respondents finding this idea to be particularly objectionable.

Although there were some sticking points, particularly for difficult changes that could come in the near future, people tended to be optimistic about the potential in technology.

The survey showed, for instance, that 51 percent of participants expect that computers will be able to create art indistinguishable from art produced by humans -- something the researchers were a little surprised by, Smith said. 

“Obviously that’s going to require some major advancements in artificial intelligence before that can become a reality," he added. "But I think that speaks to the confidence the public has that we’re going to see continued advances in computing power over the next several decades in a way that’s sort of striking.”

As for colonizing other planets, 33 percent said they expect it to happen. Growing organs in labs for use by people was anticipated to happen within the next 50 years by 81 percent of participants. The ability to teleport objects was expected by 39 percent of participants.

The survey had a few anomalies, too, that had researchers scratching their heads, Smith said. “One of the things we found really interesting was how few people anticipate that we’ll be able to control the weather,” he said. Just 19 percent of respondents predicted that people will have the ability to control the weather within the foreseeable future. 

“People think we will colonize space and learn how to teleport things before we’re able to control the weather," Smith said. "Humans have been trying to do that for hundreds of years and have not had much success with that, and clearly people think that will continue to be the case.”

And “control” is a vague term, but it is already common practice today for regions to increase their rain and snowfall through the practice of cloud seeding, a technique in which silver iodide crystals are introduced into the air.

One survey finding in particular reflects the broader concept of American technological excitement combined with worry, which is that those surveyed were more inclined to let others take the first step with new technologies before trying the technologies themselves. About 48 percent reported that they would be interested in riding in a driverless car, and 50 percent reported they would not be interested. About 72 percent reported they would not be interested in receiving a brain implant that improves memory or mental capacity, while 26 percent said they would. And only 20 percent of participants said they would be interested in eating lab-grown meat.

When survey participants were asked to describe in their own words inventions they would like to see, three themes were found. The public, according to this survey, wants travel improvements such as flying cars and bikes or even personal space craft, an invention mentioned by 19 percent of participants. Only about 9 percent of participants said they want the ability to time travel. And, equally popular, 9 percent of participants said they want health improvements that lengthen human life span or cure major diseases.

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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