April 21, 2014

Views of Science and the Future

The American public envisions profound technological changes in the next 50 years, and pairs short-term concerns with long-term optimism

Media contact: Aaron Smith, asmith@pewresearch.org, 202 419-4516

Washington, DC (April 17, 2014) – 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. This is among the main findings of a new national survey by The Pew Research Center, produced in partnership with Smithsonian Magazine.

The survey asked Americans for their predictions about the long-term future of scientific advancement, and also asked them to share their own feelings and attitudes toward some new developments that might become common features of American life in the relatively near future. Among the major findings:

Americans are largely optimistic about the long-term future of scientific progress, but concerned about some changes that might occur in the near future:

Most Americans believe that the technological developments of the coming half-century will have a net positive impact on society. Some 59% are optimistic that coming technological and scientific changes will make life in the future better, while 30% think these changes will lead to a future in which people are worse off than they are today.

At the same time, there are widespread concerns about some specific, controversial technological developments that might occur on a shorter time horizon:

  • 66% 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.
  • 65% 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% 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% 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. Women are especially wary of a future in which these devices are widespread.

“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, Senior Researcher at the Pew Research Center and author of the report. “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.”

Most Americans expect to live in a world of custom-grown organs, but few believe that science will learn to the control the weather:

Many Americans pair their long-term optimism with high expectations for the inventions of the next half century, even as they expect certain advancements (like controlling the weather) to remain outside the reach of science:

  • 81% expect that within the next 50 years, people needing new organs will have them custom grown in a lab.
  • 51% expect that computers will be able to create art that is indistinguishable from that produced by humans.
  • 39% expect that scientists will have developed the technology to teleport objects.
  • 33% expect that humans will have colonized planets other than Earth.
  • 19% expect that humans will be able to control the weather in the foreseeable future.

No, after you! Most are inclined to take a “wait and see” approach to actually trying new inventions:

Many Americans are inclined to let others take the first step when it comes to trying out some potential new technologies that might emerge relatively soon. The public is evenly divided on whether or not they would like to ride in a driverless car: 48% would be interested, while 50% would not. But significant majorities say that they are not interested in getting a brain implant to improve their memory or mental capacity (26% would, 72% would not) or in eating meat that was grown in a lab (just 20% would like to do this).

The inventions the public wants, in their own words:

Asked to describe in their own words the futuristic inventions they themselves would like to own, the public offered three common themes: 1) travel improvements like flying cars and bikes, or even personal space crafts (19% mentioned this type of invention); 2) the ability to travel through time (9%); and 3) health improvements that extend human longevity or cure major diseases (9%).

“Most Americans envision huge scientific developments in the foreseeable future—even if they themselves might not want to be the first on their block to own a driverless car or go to the store to buy meat that was grown in a lab,” said Smith. “And when asked to envision a future of their own, many jump immediately to big, paradigm-shifting notions straight from the world of science fiction.”

The survey was conducted February 13–18, 2014 by landline and cell phones among 1,001 adults. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish and the survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.