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Public is wary of using technologies to enhance human performance, survey finds

Many Americans are concerned about the potential of using synthetic blood to supplement the real thing (above).

Kenny Holston/U.S. Air Force

Public is wary of using technologies to enhance human performance, survey finds

A new poll finds that Americans have serious questions about the use of new technologies to enhance the lives of healthy people. Those with strong religious beliefs are especially troubled by the prospect of such enhancements, seeing them as meddling with nature.

The Pew Research Center surveyed 4726 U.S. adults on their views about three emerging technologies: editing genes in utero to reduce the prevalence of serious diseases, implanting brain chips into healthy individuals to augment their mental skills, and infusing synthetic blood to increase performance. The results show that Americans are much more comfortable with the idea of using those technologies to help correct existing problems or cope with a disability than to achieve a higher level of functioning.

“The strength of differences based on religious commitment is one of the most surprising results,” says Cary Funk, an associate director of research at the Washington, D.C.–based Pew center. “We were also surprised by the similarity of responses to the different technologies. And the third surprise is that the public is able to grasp the nuances of these different technologies, none of which has been put into practice.”

Overall, Pew found that:

  • 68% of Americans are worried about gene editing, compared with 49% who are enthusiastic about its use;
  • 69% are concerned about brain chips, compared with 34% who are enthusiastic; and
  • 63% are troubled by the use of synthetic blood, compared with 36% who are excited by the idea.

When Pew examined the results based on religious beliefs, it found that nearly two thirds of those with a “high” commitment to religion felt that applying the new technologies is “meddling with nature and crosses a line we should not cross.” (The group, about one quarter of the sample, prays daily and attends religious services at least once a week.) About half of those with “medium” religious ties—about half the sample—felt that way. But only about one third of those with “low” religious commitments registered such concerns. White evangelicals were especially wary: By a two-to-one margin, for example, they said gene editing crosses a line. In contrast, nearly 80% of atheists and agnostics said the technology was “no different than other ways we try to better ourselves.”

Women were significantly less likely than men to embrace using those technologies for potential enhancements. For gene editing in babies the margin was 43% versus 54%, for brain chip implants it was 26% versus 39%, and for synthetic blood it was 28% versus 43%.

The survey also asked people about the value of science and technology in their lives. And although overall attitudes are favorable—67% say science has had a “mostly positive” impact, versus 27% who say its impact is mixed—the details might surprise some scientists. Asked to fill in the blank about how science has benefited society, 59% of respondents mentioned medical and health. Improvements in food, communications, and transportation registered in the single digits. When it comes to technology, however, increased access to information beats medical advances by a wide margin—57% to 21%.

The survey was conducted both online and via mail in March. Pew also conducted six focus groups around the country to give people a chance to explore the subject in greater detail. Funk says the survey is part of an ongoing effort to assess attitudes toward “new technologies that raise ethical issues.”