While being aware of the potential progress that scientific advances and new technologies can bring to society, the general public are not always ready for the specific changes some of these innovations will entail.
Most of us are aware of the sweeping technological revolutions on the way and many are fascinated by the fact that inventions which just yesterday were the stuff of science fiction are today already becoming a reality. It appears however that certain types of progress are not all that welcome to ordinary people, who are often concerned about the changes this might entail for society. US-based think tank Pew Research Center has just published a survey-based report* which reveals the way US respondents see future progress in science and highlights their opinions on current advances that are likely to become part of our everyday lives over the next fifty years. Overall 59% of those polled expressed the view that technological developments will make life better in the long term, compared with 30% who thought such science-led change would be for the worse. Within these headline figures however there are large numbers of people who are worried about specific technological changes.
Robots divide opinion, lab-grown meat has few takers
As a an example of what some people worry about, some 65% of the Pew survey respondents said it would be a “change for the worse” if robots were to become the primary caregivers for the elderly and people in poor health. In the same vein 66% were against the idea of parents tinkering with DNA in order to ensure healthier or smarter offspring. People “are especially concerned about developments that have the potential to upend long-standing social norms,” points out Aaron Smith, the researcher who led the survey. In fact reluctance to change is often linked to ethical questions. One indication of this is that only 26% of the respondents said that if it were possible to do so, they would arrange for a brain implant to improve their memory or mental capacity. Those polled also found it difficult to project themselves into hypothetical scenarios. So, for instance, if the world’s population continues to increase while food resources diminish, how many people would be willing to eat meat that had been grown in a lab? Just one in five, the Pew survey reveals.
Drones more worrying than hyper-connectivity
Responses were less clear-cut and often paradoxical when it comes to technologies that are likely to become part of our everyday lives very soon. Unmanned aircraft are apparently of great concern, with close to two out of three people surveyed reluctant to see personal and commercial drones authorised to fly freely through US airspace. However, people found it easier to accept devices that will enable them to be permanently connected to information on the world around them, with 37% of those polled declaring that they were quite attracted by the idea of even such invasive technologies as bodily implants to heighten – particularly by using Augmented Reality – their awareness of the ambient environment. Moreover, any general nervousness about change does not appear to have dampened the great expectations of respondents as regards scientific inventions in the coming years, especially in the health field. Eight out of ten people polled believe that during the next fifty years customised organs will be grown in laboratories for patients who need a transplant.
*1,001 US adults were polled by fixed or mobile phone between 13 and 18 February 2014.