Americans optimistic about flying cars, not so much about robot caregivers

A Pew survey of 1,000 Americans asked to predict the future showed a lot of optimism but also considerable skepticism about where technology may be leading us.

A Prime Air vehicle carries a package during an Amazon test of a drone delivery system. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says he hopes to have a program in which Amazon delivers packages via drone up and running within five years.

Maybe just the tiniest sliver of possibility of someday having to bow to robot overlords plays into why Americans are uncomfortable about some futuristic prospects, including using human-like robots to care for the elderly.

On the other hand, according to a new Pew study that quizzed Americans about their views and predictions about the future, the world according to “Back to the Future” – flying cars, even time travel – is exciting to a majority of people. Indeed, 59 percent of respondents say technological change will ultimately make life better, compared to 30 percent who believe it could make life worse.

“The American public anticipates that the coming half-century will be a period of profound scientific change, as inventions that were once confined to the realm of science fiction come into common usage,” writes Pew senior researcher Aaron Smith.

The study, done in cooperation with the Smithsonian, is part in fun, but also contains some prescriptions for technology companies working the leading edge of the technologically possible.

A large majority of American believe custom organ transplants are possible within 50 years, but another majority – 63 percent – believes that a future filled with drones buzzing the sky is not desirable.

Americans are also skeptical about the future of “wearable” computers, like Google’s beta version of Glass. Fifty-three percent say people being constantly fed digital information through their senses is not a good thing.

“For Google, which has struggled to make its Glass computerized eyewear socially acceptable, for Amazon, which has floated the possibility of delivering packages by drone, and for other companies banking on the future, the survey's findings suggest that research budgets should be matched by investments in public relations,” writes Thomas Claburn, in Information Week. “The future may be bright but people are more comfortable with the present.”

Indeed, majorities of Americans say certain strands of research give them the heebie-jeebies.

For example, 66 percent say society would take a turn for the worse if would-be parents could tweak the DNA of their offspring to create little super humans.

About an equal percentage say life would change for the worse if society allows lifelike robots to become primary caregivers for the elderly.

Researchers found that the more money a respondent makes, the more optimistic about the impact of future technologies they are.

Americans also seem to have a healthy skepticism about what’s really possible. Only thirty-three percent say scientists will perfect a teleportation device in the next 50 years, and a mere 19 percent believe humans will be able to control weather by 2064. Thirty-three percent believe they’ll live in a world where humans have colonized other planets.

About 1 in 10 Americans strike a Luddite stance, claiming there are no futuristic inventions they’d like to own. At least they can’t think of one right now.

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