Americans are scared about the future of drones, robots, and wearables

And why we should be more scared about robots.

Generally, most Americans are optimistic about the impact of technology on the future, specifically in regards to its impact on healthcare. A recent Pew Research report shows that 81% of responding Americans expect that patients in need of a transplant will be able to receive lab-grown organs within the next 50 years, for example.

However, concerns over technology that is already controversial today trump the optimism overall. From the report:

66% 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% of Americans 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.

Other interesting findings: 48% of respondents said they’d be interested in riding in a driverless car, while 50% said they would not be, which is just further evidence of the uphill battle the autonomous vehicle faces. And while most are excited about lab-grown human organs, just 20% said they’d eat meat that was grown in a lab.

The concern over wearable devices echoes the growing opposition to Google Glass, whose backlash has ranged from online mockery to physical violence and theft against those wearing the device in public. As I’ve written and as Google has recently tried to clarify, much of this concern is the result of misconceptions about the technology, particularly in regards to facial recognition. Although some Glass “explorers” have developed functional facial-recognition apps for the device, Google has adamantly refused to support the technology.

That, however, doesn’t change the fact that a YouTube video shows people wearing Glass devices that recognize people’s faces, matches them with their names, and searches their information on social networks and criminal databases. Nor does it address the potential for a Glass competitor emerging that elects to support facial recognition, which the facial-recognition app developers said they'd embrace if Google doesn't change its policy. It’s not entirely surprising to see that the majority thinks “it would be a change for the worse” to encounter more wearable devices that reveal information about other people in their surroundings.

The negativity around drones isn’t much of a surprise either, considering the privacy concerns about the devices. One small town in Colorado even permitted residents to shoot down airborne drones at will, as long as they’d obtained the proper paperwork. The vote on the ordinance has since been postponed “while a district court decides whether the ordinance is legal,” according to CNN. But the fact that it got enough support to get to a vote suggests just how people feel about drones.

Aside from the extreme drone opponents, consider the everyday people worried about safety. Just last week, a drone fell out of the sky and struck a triathlete in Australia. An ambulance crew had to treat her for a laceration and reportedly removed a piece of the drone’s propeller from her head. Compare this problem with Amazon’s vision of constant drone deliveries and you have a recipe for a country full of concerned parents.

The disdain for “lifelike” robots as caregivers was a bit surprising. I suppose I wouldn’t like a robot as the only person taking care of me, but it doesn’t sound too bad as a replacement for orderlies in some cases. We’ve all heard stories of abuse at elderly care facilities, and outside of science fiction movies I’ve never heard of a robot committing a senseless act of violence or neglect. But I don’t know a whole lot about the subject, and I’m sure it’ll have to be sorted out.

One issue I was surprised not to see was concern over the impact of robots and drones on jobs for humans. A 2013 Oxford study (PDF) estimated that as many as 47% of human jobs in the U.S. can be automated, taken over by robots or drones that don’t require a wage (let alone a minimum wage) and can work round-the-clock. I’d long considered myself exempt from this threat, and then a robot starting writing news stories for the LA Times and a software program started writing better sports articles than humans could. Nobody is really safe from the impending robot jobs war. Lifelike robots aren’t the only kind that should cause concern for the future.

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