Should People Be Made Stronger, Faster, or Smarter Through Technology?

11:26 minutes

Emerging technologies like gene editing, brain chips, and artificial blood have the potential to improve countless lives, but a new survey finds that the public isn’t so sure about using those technologies for human enhancement. Cary Funk of the Pew Research Center says that when it comes to using new technologies to improve a human’s cognitive or physical abilities, many Americans have serious reservations.

Segment Guests

Cary Funk

Cary Funk is Associate Director of Research at the Pew Research Center in Washington, DC.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. Ira Flatow is away. Advances in electronics and biomedical technology are taking phrases that sound like something out of science fiction and beginning to make them possible. Gene editing, brain chips, synthetic blood. And while many people accept research into those technologies to cure a disease or treat a condition, those same technologies have the potential to add capabilities to a human being. Extra height, extra endurance, better reaction time. A new survey published this week finds that many Americans don’t think that this is a good idea. But what do you think? If given the opportunity to make yourself smarter with a brain chip, would you do it? Our number is 844-724-8255. That’s 844-SCI-TALK. You can always tweet us @scifri. You can join us there any time. Again, 844-724-8255.

Let me bring in our guest. Cary Funk is associate director of research at the Pew Research Center in Washington. She’s co-author on the report which was issued this week. Welcome, Cary.

CARY FUNK: Thank you. I’m delighted to be here.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, you looked at three technologies. Gene editing, brain chips, and artificial blood. Do people that you talked to look at these three technologies the same way?

CARY FUNK: That’s one of the surprises here is that even though these are three very different technologies and they’re used in different ways, the contours of public opinion were quite similar across the three. You know overall, we’re seeing Americans largely cautious about using these emerging technologies in ways that would push human capacities beyond what’s been possible before.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So is there a difference in attitude between people on the technology itself, or whether they use it on themselves? So it’s one thing to have it as an idea that someone could use, another thing to say, would I put a chip in my head?

CARY FUNK: That’s right. Obviously these are difficult concepts to get across in a public opinion survey. It’s complex technology. They’re emerging technologies. They’re not readily available right now. They’re available only in very limited circumstances right now for therapeutic needs. So what this does is give us an early look at public opinion about using these cutting edge technologies to boost human abilities. And what we see are some similar patterns in terms of people being more worried than enthusiastic about each of them. And we also see that people, when you talk about the possibility of making more dramatic changes to human abilities, that that tends to be less acceptable.

I’ll give you just one example of that from the brain chip implant. If those abilities would be equal to one’s peak cognitive abilities now, then about half of Americans say that would be an appropriate use of the technology. But far fewer, about 3 in 10, say the same if the resulting abilities would be far above that of any human known to date.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So that seems really non-intuitive, right? You would put in a brain chip, you go to the trouble of all this, and it would just make me as smart as I normally am on my smartest day versus it would make me Albert Einstein. But people are actually more scared of the Einstein chip?

CARY FUNK: So yes, it is I guess a bit counter-intuitive. So for all the potential appeal of having sharper brains and being stronger and healthier, t that’s part of the surprise here, is that you do see Americans largely cautious about using these technologies in this way.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Of course there are the technologies like a chip in your brain or artificial blood which I might choose to take myself. Gene editing, though, has to do with what might happen with our children. That’s sort of a different question, isn’t it?

CARY FUNK: Well it is a little bit different. You know, human enhancement is a very broad idea and it’s a term used mostly by ethicists. So in simple terms, it’s making biochemical or surgical changes to improve our cognitive abilities, our physical abilities, and that includes our health. Now on the other hand, as you say, gene editing to reduce a baby’s risk of disease– we did talk about a healthy baby, not a baby who has a serious condition that we’re trying to remedy– is obviously the most closely linked with that idea of medical and therapeutic needs. And so to the extent we saw differences across the three, we do see opinion about gene editing being a little more positive, or a little less wary, if you would. Public’s more divided about whether or not they would want gene editing for their baby and more say they would be net benefits for society than downsides.

JOHN DANKOSKY: You found some interesting results around gender and around religion. Could you talk about that?

CARY FUNK: Sure. One of the strongest divides in public opinion actually is along religious lines. So people who are more religious– In this case, you know, it’s a phrase used to mean across religious faiths. People who say religion is very important in their lives or are more practicing in terms of prayer and attending service. Those folks tended to be much more negative. Concerned about these kinds of enhancements. They’re more likely to see these different techniques as meddling with nature and crossing a line that should not be crossed.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Martin in Gainesville, Florida actually has a question I wanted to ask. Hi Martin. Go ahead. You’re on Science Friday.

MARTIN: Yes, hi. Thanks for taking my call. Like so many other new things that are going to be amazing developments, they’re going to be costly. And so my question has to do with whether or not this is going to create sort of a new class warfare of haves and have-nots of technological enhancement. Whether you’ve got the resources to do it or not, is this going to be available to all or is it going to be something that’s going to create a group of those that have it and those that simply can’t get it?

JOHN DANKOSKY: Boy, it’s a really great question, Martin. Thank you for that. Cary Funk, is that something you asked about?

CARY FUNK: Right. I mean, I can’t predict what will happen, but you’re raising a point that many people think will happen. Which is, we did ask about different things people thought would occur because of these techniques and about 7 in 10 said more inequality would occur because these would only be available for the wealthy, at least initially.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah. And I wonder, are there any economic splits on your study? Because some people might think, my goodness, it would help me get ahead in life. Other people have much of what they already need.

CARY FUNK: Right. And that’s one of the surprises. So, you know, though many people saw more social inequality occurring, there were not strong differences by education or income or by race-ethnicity. You mentioned earlier there are some other tendencies between men and women where men tend to be a little more accepting of these technologies than women. But beyond that, not so many other differences.

JOHN DANKOSKY: You mentioned earlier the question of therapeutic needs. I mean, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of people who question the notion that we’d use the latest technology to heal someone who is sick. But we’re talking about something very different, here. How do people feel about new technologies that will help fix a broken body versus somebody who’s functioning perfectly well then adding something to make themselves even better?

CARY FUNK: Right. And that’s an idea that also came up in the focus groups. In order to get at these concepts, the first thing we did was talk with people in small groups and get a sense of how they were thinking about these issues. And we heard in those discussions very clearly that when this was something for a medical or therapeutic need, then that was no problem. But they were questioning the necessity of doing these kinds of things for healthy people.

JOHN DANKOSKY: John is calling from Avon, Connecticut. Hi, John.

JOHN: Hey, how’s it going?

JOHN DANKOSKY: Good. What’s up?

JOHN: So one of the things that I just wanted to comment on is– I work for the United States Navy and one of the things that we do is– we’re really the forefront of using technology to bring–

CARY FUNK: I’m sorry I lost you there.

JOHN: –the best that the United States has. Say again?

JOHN DANKOSKY: I think our guest just said she couldn’t hear you for a second there. Maybe I’ll put you on hold John and maybe finish out your question. Can you hear me Cary? Hi. Cary Funk, are you there?

CARY FUNK: Yes, I’m here.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK, good. John from Avon, Connecticut was just asking a question about the military. The idea that there’s going to be some people who probably will be on the front edge of this technology more so than others. Did you look at all into how these technologies might be developed or who they might be used with? Because one might think that if you’re trying to enhance humans, the military would be at the forefront of this.

CARY FUNK: Right. I mean, you know, these ideas are being talked about because of the potential for these developing technologies to be used more broadly. So certainly right now, they’re more being developed for particular needs. But this idea is one that we wanted to get at in terms of broader innovation. So this is really part of our more ongoing effort to look at the emerging technologies and what kinds of ethical and social implications they might bring.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Of course we’ve had something called cosmetic surgery around for a very long time and people have for years been trying to change their appearance. Do people’s opinions around human enhancement run along the same lines as their thoughts about cosmetic surgery? It’s a type of enhancement in its own right.

CARY FUNK: Yes, so, you know, this is one of these ideas that comes up a lot in terms of whether familiarity with these techniques is part of what’s going on. So just as a point of comparison, the Pew Research study also looked at public thinking about a handful of current enhancements that are widely available now. As you mentioned, some are cosmetic procedures and others are not. And as you might expect, public views tend to be more positive overall about these procedures. But we also see some mixed reaction to today’s enhancements. I’ll give you just one or two examples. In a very general question, we find that roughly 6 in 10 Americans say people are too quick to undergo cosmetic procedures to change their appearance in ways that are not really important.

JOHN DANKOSKY: We had a presidential candidate just this week say, I believe in science, and get a big cheer. I’m wondering how you feel like these findings fit in with people’s overall thoughts about science and discovery right now in America.

CARY FUNK: Right. I think it’s really important to keep in mind that the general public tends to hold positive views about the effect of science and technology on society. In the very same survey, we find 2/3 of adults saying science has had mostly positive effects and biomedical contributions are one of the most important reasons given for that point of view. So while there are a number of concerns that we uncovered in the survey, we also find that positive effect of science. We also see expectations for continued innovation to occur in the future. So roughly half of adults think the idea of an implanted computer chip is likely to be routine occurrence within the next 50 years. About that many, 47% foresees a future with almost no birth defects because of genetic modification of embryos. So we see that a lot in surveys about science. There’s broadly positive views and often the public is optimistic about continued innovation.

JOHN DANKOSKY: They’re optimistic. And do they get more optimistic as they learn more, as they find out more about what science is possible and what’s on the horizon? They get more optimistic about it?

CARY FUNK: Yeah. I mean, that’s a tricky question. So certainly people who, right now, have heard more about these ideas tended to be more positive about them. More likely to want each of these enhancements for themselves or for their baby. And we’ll have to see down the road whether that holds. It could be that these are people who are just staying abreast of science and technology and they’re also more enthusiastic or it could be that, as people become more familiar, they become more accepting.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Cary Funk is associate director of research at the Pew Research Center in Washington. Cary, thanks so much for joining us and bringing us these interesting studies.

CARY FUNK: My pleasure.

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