The Pew Research Center released the 2014 survey of U.S. adults (1,001 participants, surveyed by land-line or cell phone interviews) regarding their views on technological advancements in the next 50 years.
Over eighty percent of the participants said that “People in need of an organ transplant will have new organs custom made for them in a lab” and roughly half of the participants felt that “Computers will be as effective as people at creating important works of art such as music, novels, movies, or paintings” within the next 50 years. The vast majority did not think that humans will be able to control the weather during the next few decades.
As someone working in the field of vascular and tissue engineering, I think that the perception of scientists being able to engineer transplantable organs within 50 years is realistic. We have made quite a bit of progress in the past decade when it comes to deriving functional tissues from stem cells, but we still need more research before we will be able to build functional organs. It may take a decade or two before we can reliably generate these organs, and even longer to teat and optimize them for therapeutic purposes, and to ensure their long-term survival in transplant recipients.
The reason to be optimistic about engineering organs is that we have already seen examples of engineered tissues and small organoids being implanted into animal models. There are also ongoing early clinical trials with patches of engineered tissues and engineered blood vessels. Scaling up these successes to whole organ engineering in humans will be challenging but sounds feasible.
I am surprised by the fact that half of the U.S. adults believe computers will be “effective” at creating works of art within the next 50 years. Do we have preliminary evidence – even at a small scale – that computers can currently “create” art? Perhaps this comes down to our definitions of what constitutes “creativity”. One could envision computers generating paintings, music and novels based on existing art created by humans. But is that true creativity? Then again, when humans “create” art, they also base their new product on their experiences and prior art created by other humans. Maybe computer-created art in fifty years isn’t far-fetched after all.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about new technologies.
When asked whether it would be a change for the better or a change for the worse……
1) “If most people wear implants or other devices that constantly show them information about the world around them”
2) “If lifelike robots become the primary caregivers for the elderly and people in poor health”
3) “If personal and commercial drones are given permission to fly through most U.S. airspace”
4) “If prospective parents can alter the DNA of their children to produce smarter, healthier, or more athletic offspring”
…the majority of participants felt they would be worse off with these changes.
The way the questions were phrased did not leave room for a more nuanced response. For example, would it be ok to change DNA to “produce” healthier children (i.e. correct lethal genetic defects using genome editing) without necessarily “producing” smarter and more athletic children?
Conflating health, intelligence and athleticism into one question makes it difficult to ascertain how the public feels about using genome editing to help children survive versus using it to make kids run faster.
Most participants did not think they would want to eat lab grown meat or use brain implants to improve their mental capacity but roughly half of them seemed fine with using driverless cars.
When asked about what futuristic invention they would like to own, younger participants seemed most excited about time travel and other travel gadgets (flying cars, bikes and space crafts), whereas older participants wanted to inventions to prolong life or cure diseases.
I was a bit surprised that this final question did not elicit responses such as inventions that would help reduce or reverse global warming and pollution or inventions that could remedy world hunger and the global scarcity of resources. Maybe it has to also do with how the question was phrased. Here is the actual question:
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 is the actual data (PDF) of the responses people gave:
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%
World peace/Stop wars/Improved understanding/Better planet 2%
New energy source/efficient cars/other environment 2%
Invention to make household tasks easier 1%
Ability to live forever/Immortality 1%
Money/Scheme to get rich/Ability to read future 1%
Brain implant/Improve memory 1%
Remote communications (via device or ESP) *
None/Nothing/Not interested in futuristic inventions 11%
The science fiction reference in the question may have prompted participants to think of technologies described in sci-fi novels and movies. Perhaps the majority of respondents did not think that world peace or climate-control could be achieved with specific sci-fi style inventions. Or perhaps the participants did not realize that climate change, global scarcity of food or other resources and violent conflicts are some of the biggest threats that humankind has ever faced.
Many of the responses to this final question tend to fall into the category of “how could my life become more convenient“, such as using personal robots and flying cars. But will these conveniences even matter if we cannot curb the major threats that our planet faces?