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What future will our children inherit? (Image Source/Corbis)

New Poll Reveals Americans' Predictions of the Future

What are they most fearful of? What are they most optimistic about?

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Most Americans view the technology- driven future with a sense of hope.

They just don’t want to live there.

That paradoxical view—future technology sounds awesome, but it’s not for me—is one major finding from an exclusive new national survey conducted by Smithsonian and the Pew Research Center. The opinion poll involved 1,001 people interviewed in February by landline or cellphone.

Almost 60 percent of respondents said technology would improve life in the future—roughly twice as many as those who said it would make things worse. But driverless cars? Lab-produced meat? Brain implants just to get smarter or improve memory? No thanks.

Will technology make your life better or worse?
better
worse
don't know
pew survey results
pie chart
11%
Don't know/
no answer
59%
Mostly
better
30%
Mostly
worse
Would life be better or worse if: most people wear implants or other devices that constantly show them information about the world around them?
better
worse
good & bad
don't know
pew survey results
Change for the better
|
Both
|
Don't know
|
Change for the worse
|
37%
6%
5%
53%
|
Would life be better or worse if: lifelike robots become the primary caregivers for the elderly and people in poor health?
better
worse
good & bad
don't know
pew survey results
Change for the better
|
Both
|
Don't know
|
Change for the worse
|
28%
4%
3%
65%
|
Would life be better or worse if: prospective parents can alter the DNA of their children to produce smarter, healthier, or more athletic offspring?
better
worse
good & bad
don't know
pew survey results
Change for the better
|
Both
|
Don't know
|
Change for the worse
|
26%
5%
3%
66%
|
Would life be better or worse if: personal and commercial drones are given permission to fly through most U.S. airspace?
better
worse
good & bad
don't know
pew survey results
Change for the better
|
Both
|
Don't know
|
Change for the worse
|
22%
7%
7%
63%
|
next question >

If people had been asked specifically about future technologies that promise to alleviate current challenges, such as curing cancer or eliminating pollution, the respondents would presumably have embraced such changes without reservation.

But the new survey, done for this special issue about the links between science and science fiction, was intended to reveal public attitudes about future technologies envisioned in sci-fi movies and literature. Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, says “the things we asked about were not mere conveniences or little incremental advances, but big, imaginative stuff.”

And that stuff, ranging from robotic caregivers to commercial or personal drones flying in U.S. airspace, gave people pause.

In the next fifty years, how likely is it that: people in need of an organ transplant will have new organs custom made for them in a lab?
already happened
definitely
probably
don't know
probably not
definitely not
pew survey results
pie chart
22%
60%
10%
In the next fifty years, how likely is it that: computers will be as effective as people at creating important works of art such as music, novels, movies, or paintings?
already happened
definitely
probably
don't know
probably not
definitely not
pew survey results
pie chart
16%
35%
25%
20%
In the next fifty years, how likely is it that: scientists will have developed a way to teleport objects - that is, moving objects from one location to another without physically touching them?
already happened
definitely
probably
don't know
probably not
definitely not
pew survey results
pie chart
32%
34%
22%
In the next fifty years, how likely is it that: humans will build colonies on another planet that can be lived in for long periods?
already happened
definitely
probably
don't know
probably not
definitely not
pew survey results
pie chart
28%
39%
25%
In the next fifty years, how likely is it that: humans will be able to control the weather?
already happened
definitely
probably
don't know
probably not
definitely not
pew survey results
pie chart
13%
33%
44%
next question >

Giving respondents a chance to unleash their own imaginations, they were asked what life-changing invention they would like to see. Two ideas tied for first place, with 9 percent apiece. One was right out of science fiction—time travel—whereas the other was as old as the hills, the wish to improve health and boost longevity.

But 39 percent didn’t name anything, perhaps suggesting that they are content with things as they are or, as Steve Jobs said, “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

If the technology existed, would you: eat meat that was grown in a lab?
yes
no
don't know
pew survey results
pie chart
yes 20%
no 78%
don't know 2%
|
men 27% yes
|
women 14% yes
|
If the technology existed, would you: ride in a driverless car?
yes
no
don't know
pew survey results
pie chart
yes 48%
no 50%
don't know 2%
|
men 54% yes
women 43% yes
If the technology existed, would you: get a brain implant to improve your memory or mental capacity?
yes
no
don't know
pew survey results
pie chart
yes 26%
no 72%
don't know 2%
|
men 26% yes
women 26% yes
Science fiction writers have always imagined new inventions that change the world of the future. How about you? If there was one futuristic invention that you could own, what would it be?
Here are some inventions that others said they would like to own:
Improved health and longevity/Cure for diseases 9%
Time machine/Time travel 9%
Flying car/Flying bike 6%
Personal robot/Robot servants 4%
Personal space craft 4%
Self-driving car 3%
Teleporter/Teleportation/Transporter 3%
World peace/Stop wars/Improved understanding/Better planet 2%
next question >
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About T.A. Frail
T.A. Frail

Tom Frail is a senior editor for Smithsonian magazine. He previously worked as a senior editor for the Washington Post and for Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.

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