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Science


Americans are riddled with ambivalence when it comes to the march of science — optimistic, queasy, expectant or dubious, depending on the particular subject at hand.

On the whole, U.S. citizens expect to see profound advances in the next half century, according to a Pew Research Center survey released on Thursday, completed in partnership with Smithsonian Magazine.

By then, 81 percent of the 1,001 adult respondents expect labs will churn out custom-ordered transplant organs, 51 percent believe computers will create artistic works that give Tolstoy a run for his money, 39 percent say we’ll have cracked teleportation and 33 percent predict we’ll have colonized other planets. (Elon Musk would seem to agree.)

Asked what inventions they most want to take advantage of themselves, participants repeatedly landed on three themes: Medical strides that extend human longevity, flying cars or personal space crafts, and time travel.

On the other hand, nearer realities like robot caregivers, face computers, genetic engineering and drones seem to give a lot of people the heebie-jeebies. Among the findings:

  • 65 percent think it would be a change for the worse if lifelike robots become the primary caregivers for the elderly and people in poor health.
  • 63 percent think it would be a change for the worse if personal and commercial drones are given permission to fly through most U.S. airspace.
  • 53 percent think it would be a change for the worse if most people wear implants or other devices that constantly show them information about the world around them.

“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,” said Aaron Smith, a senior researcher at Pew, in a statement. “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.”

Here’s a quick (and surely imperfect) theory: The dichotomy in some ways parallels the uncanny valley of robotics — the theory that the more a robot resembles an actual human, the creepier it becomes to us. Perhaps similarly, the more technology approaches current human reality — closes in on our actual daily lives — the scarier it gets.

In part, maybe, we’re forced to actually think through the implications — and in part, possibly, we like the abstract idea of progress more than the actual hassle of change.

The report touched on this idea: “Most new inventions appeal at first to a relatively small group of adventuresome early adopters, with the bulk of consumers following along only after they have had a chance to see for themselves what the fuss is about. And indeed, many Americans have a pronounced skepticism toward some new inventions that they might be able to use or purchase in the relatively near future.”

Then again, some of the split surely reflects that Pew asked about controversial topics that raise real ethical issues. As I said, it’s not a perfect theory.

But here are a few other highlights from the survey to chew on:

“The public is evenly divided on whether or not they would like to ride in a driverless car: 48 percent would be interested, while 50 percent would not.”

Sorry, Google.

“Significant majorities say that they are not interested in getting a brain implant to improve their memory or mental capacity (26 percent would, 72 percent would not).”

More brain boosters for me!

“… or in eating meat that was grown in a lab (just 20 percent would like to do this).”

Sorry, Sergey.

“11 percent answered … that there are no futuristic inventions that they would like to own.'”

Pro tip: Maybe don’t mention that in your OkCupid profile, sourpuss.

“66 percent of Americans think it would be a change for the worse if prospective parents could alter the DNA of their children to produce smarter, healthier, or more athletic offspring.”

This is already becoming an increasingly important debate as prenatal DNA sequencing technology improves. But some researchers in China don’t necessarily share these concerns, as reported here and here and here, so just know that this might one day affect our international quiz bowl rankings.



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