Humans wary of robotic future

With technology rapidly and continually advancing, it’s interesting to try to figure how regular Americans feel about what awaits us. A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in conjunction with Smithsonian Magazine concluded that though the majority of Americans are optimistic about the future of technology, many feel skeptical about specific advancements and how they will affect society.

Though Americans seem overwhelmingly positive about technology — even more so for individuals with a college education — a consistent thread throughout the poll is that Americans aren’t yet comfortable with technology that could either augment a person beyond his or natural means or sacrifice his or her control over technology.

The notable statistics in the poll seem to reveal inherent concerns with health augmentation especially. Among those polled, 66 percent think it would be a change for the worse if people could alter the DNA of their offspring, and 53 percent of Americans think society would be worse off if most people wore implants or devices that could reveal information about the world around them. Just a scant 26 percent of respondents to the poll said they would get a brain implant that could improve their intelligence or memory.

A fear about security and privacy also seems to be a consistent thread throughout the poll, with 63 percent saying that it would be a change for the worse if personal and commercial drones were given permission to fly through American airspace. Drones have been a trending concern for their militaristic implications and the possibility of commercial use (Amazon has already proposed using drones to deliver certain packages).

The other thing to note in the poll is that Americans remain hesitant to leave things up entirely to a machine. Fifty percent of Americans said they would not be willing to ride in a driverless car, in spite of the fact that there has been consistent evidence, in particular with the driverless Google cars, that an automated vehicle is much safer. Sixty-five percent said they would not be comfortable with robot caregivers watching over the elderly or children.

There also seems to be misplaced expectations regarding long-term technological advancements.  Thirty-nine percent of Americans believe that scientists will have figured out teleportation (Star Trek might have made this seem too viable) in the next 50 years and 33 percent think we’ll have space colonies by 2064.

Though this might be disappointing to a technological optimist, given the state of our culture as well as the perception of technology’s potential pitfalls, it’s not very surprising. The notion of creating “custom babies” brings up an uncomfortable notion of genetic superiority, not to mention the implication that the rich would almost assuredly have an advantage since it’s doubtful the service would be cheaply available. Americans’ skepticism of automated technology such as a driverless car is consistent with our societal need to have control over something we own. We still are reluctant to leave things in the hands of a machine.

Now all of this might have to do with Americans’ overall feelings for the future. Americans are unsure about the future five years from now — forget what technology might evolve to 50 years down the road. The National Security Agency has made everyone scared about the notion of privacy in the digital world even as society relies on a digital profile more and more each day.

The fact that the advancements Americans feel most positive about are health-related shows that many of us are more concerned about our mortality than the prospect of hospitable robotics or artificial physical advancements improving our lives, possibly at the cost of losing what makes us human. Many of these advancements are not only inevitable but will also become mainstream sooner than anyone is expecting. It’s going to be hard to win over a skeptical public, but at the moment, Americans are concerned with the present. And when the future finally arrives, there’s no telling what the state of the country will be and how that will change our perceptions.


Robert Calcagno is a graduate student studying Animation. His column, “Tech Talk,” runs Mondays.