Looking back at what technologies people thought were going to be common today a century ago, it's hard not to laugh. Our imaginations ran wild with visions of jetpacks and flying cars, and space elevators. It turns out we really haven't come that far: A Pew Research survey finds we're just as enamored of these fantastical devices as ever.
We meanwhile face a wave of innovations that promise to make our lives easier right now — from self-driving cars to wearable technology to ever more sophisticated drones. But in contrast to our soaring Jetsons-like vision of the future, these contemporary inventions actually make us really, really uncomfortable. Hypothetical technology is fun. Actual technology creeps us out. The more clearly we see them, the more uncertain we become that these are things we actually want.
It's a slightly contradictory way to think about technology (although nobody said it had to make sense). Below, a few other technological trends Pew has identified that have us thoroughly and utterly confused.
We think we'll figure out teleportation before space colonies. Thirty-nine percent of Americans think we'll be able to beam people from point A to point B in 50 years. That's compared to 33 percent who think we'll figure out how to live off-planet. This is just a little bit puzzling. We've already been to the moon. We know how to grow food indoors. We have people who live on a floating space station for months at a time, for goodness' sake. And yet somehow we're convinced that we'll be able to re-engineer the basic physics of matter in under a half-century?
People are really excited about improvements in health care. But keep the robot caretakers away! One in 10 Americans are looking forward to a future of extended lifespans or improvements in disease control. At the same time, they're very skittish about futuristic technologies that could improve their health today, such as robots. Robots are a totally normal thing in places like Japan, where a quickly aging population has created a need for more caretakers than the system can provide. At a time when elderly abuse has been identified in a third of U.S. nursing homes, could entrusting your health to a machine really be any worse?
Everyone wishes they could get everywhere more conveniently. But there's already a perfectly good solution for that. If there's one thing people in this study are obsessed about, it's transportation. Roughly half say they'd be interested in trying a driverless car. Six percent say they want a flying car. (Jetpack diehards are relatively rare, at 1 percent.) As fanciful as these solutions may be, they all speak to the same underlying problem: people seem to hate the drudgery of getting around. The answer to this problem may not be in better vehicles, but in better urban planning. That means structuring our living environments in a way that makes a long journey to work, or to the grocery store, or to entertainment unnecessary.
Everyone loves the tacocopter, but we all think commercial drones will be terrible. Even as the Federal Aviation Administration comes under increasing pressure to speed up its rulemaking process for commercial drones, 63 percent of Americans told Pew that opening up the nation's airspace to personal and commercial drones would be a bad thing. Just 22 percent say it could be a good thing. The widespread skepticism about drones cuts against the often breathless coverage of commercial drones in the tech press.
Asking people what kinds of technology they'd most like to see — or what they think is most likely to arrive on the market — is a great way of taking a nation's pulse. But if this study has anything to teach us, it's that technology often creates new problems of its own without addressing the actual problems we think it's meant to solve.