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Americans love technology, but we aren’t so sure about using it to enhance our bodies

Your smartphone may be constantly in your hand, but how do you feel about a chip in your brain? (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)
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It's clear from our screen-obsessed society that people love technology. But how do we feel about implanting new technology into our own bodies? Do people who never let their smartphone out of their grip necessarily want a chip in their brains?

The answer is complicated, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center. Overall, the study found that most people are not ready to accept more invasive medical technology advancements.

For example, a majority of Americans said they would be “very” or “somewhat” worried about three specific biomedical technologies chosen by Pew: gene editing, brain chips and synthetic blood. In all these cases, worry about the technology outweighs the excitement people feel about it.

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Researchers conducted focus groups and surveys with 4,700 total participants to suss out their attitudes toward enhancement. This study is part of an ongoing look at the social and ethical issues of biomedical technology.

One of the factors that most determines how people feel about this sort of technology is how religious they are, said Cary Funk, Pew’s associate director of research on science and society. More than 60 percent of those who said they were highly committed to a religion felt that gene editing, brain chips and synthetic blood cross a line that shouldn’t be crossed. Among those with a low commitment to religion, no more than 36 percent of people felt the same.

But among the religious, there is some debate over whether to view these technologies as playing God or as a gift from God.

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“There are those who don’t believe you should be touching what God has created,” said one participant, identified in the study as a 52-year-old black evangelical Protestant man in Atlanta. “I’m probably in that category where the Lord gave people the ability to come up with a way to help you [and it’s okay to take advantage of that].”

​The nature of the enhancement also had an effect on how Americans felt about the different procedures.

Many users in the focus groups raised concerns about the creation of superhumans or a Nazi-esque pursuit of eugenics. If a change was temporary, participants were more open to it. The same was true of changes that were less sweeping — or described as technology to help a person unlock their natural potential or help disadvantaged people rise to an average level.

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For example, 54 percent of respondents said it’s appropriate to offer gene editing to a baby if it allows that child to be equally as healthy as people today. But the same percentage said it would be taking technology too far to use gene editing to make people “far healthier than any human known to date.”

“It’s pretty clear that thinking about these ideas in connection with helping people with medical issues is different than taking people who are otherwise healthy and enhancing their abilities,” Funk said.

That tracks with how users felt about current enhancement procedures such as cosmetic surgery. Sixty-one percent said people are too quick to turn to cosmetic surgery — indicating they don’t really approve of the practice — but a nearly equal amount said it still constituted an appropriate use of technology.

What surprised Funk was how consistent attitudes were across groups. And, she said, while most felt apprehensive about what may be coming next, most were nevertheless resigned to the fact that these sorts of technologies are on the way.

“Even if people are cautious about potential changes," she said, about half think they’re likely to become a reality within the next 50 years.