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Where's my flying car? Survey sizes up how we see the future

A newly published survey suggests that Americans expect the next 50 years to bring innovations of science-fiction proportions—including old standbys like flying cars and "Star Trek" teleportation.

Robert MacPherson | AFP | Getty Images

But the future that Americans expect isn't totally bright, according to the survey issued by the Pew Research Center in partnership with Smithsonian Magazine.

"Even though people are optimistic about how this will all work out in the long term, there's a lot of concern about social norms, such as surveillance and privacy," Pew senior researcher Aaron Smith told NBC News.

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Fifty-nine percent of the 1,001 adults who were surveyed said they were optimistic that technological changes would make life mostly better in the long term, compared with 30 percent who said people's lives would be mostly worse.

The optimists were more likely to be men than women, and were more likely to have completed college, according to the survey. But there was no significant difference between young and old.

Drones? Implants? No, thanks

The details reveal that some visions of the future are more devoutly to be wished than others. For example, 63 percent said it'd be a bad idea to let personal and commercial drones to fly through U.S. airspace. That might come as a disappointment to Amazon, Facebook and Google, all of which are getting into the drone business.

Fifty-three percent said life would be worse if most people started wearing implants or other devices that constantly showed them information about the world around them—which is kind of a buzzkill for Google Glass. And about two-thirds of those surveyed didn't like the idea of DNA designer babies or robot caregivers.

"As new inventions come into widespread use, they change the ways that people can interact, and cause us to reassess the norms of our behavior," Smith observed. "That process can sometimes be painful."

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Even if Americans in general aren't crazy about a far-out technology in particular, the survey suggests that a significant minority would still jump at the chance to get a brain-enhancing implant (26 percent), eat lab-grown meat (20 percent) or ride in a driverless car (48 percent).

Innovations for 2064

The survey respondents also were asked to gauge the chances of seeing five science-fiction innovations take hold in the next 50 years. Here's how they answered:

  • 81 percent said patients needing an organ transplant would have new organs custom-made for them in the lab. (You could argue that day has already dawned, based on the availability of lab-grown noses, ears, vaginas, windpipes and other parts.)
  • 51 percent said computers will soon match humans when it comes to creating works of art. (Computers may not yet be painting masterpieces, but they can classify them as well as human art historians can.)
  • 39 percent said scientists will be able to teleport objects from one location to another. (Quantum information is already being teleported, but could scientists teleport stuff as substantial as "Star Trek" away teams? Not bloody likely.)
  • 33 percent said humans will be living in long-term space colonies 50 years from now. (NASA is grappling with a long-term exploration program that doesn't foresee sending astronauts to Mars until the 2030s, but SpaceX founder Elon Musk hopes to ferry colonists to Mars someday.)
  • 19 percent said humans will be able to control the weather. (China has been working on weather modification technology for more than a decade, with mostly cloudy results.)

"We were all a bit surprised by how few people think humans will control the weather," Smith said. "Half as many think we'll be able to control the weather as think that we'll solve teleportation. That jumped out at us."

Robot servants trump world peace

Smith was also surprised by the response to the last question on the survey: If there was one futuristic invention that you could own, what would it be?

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"A lot of people didn't have a good answer to that question," he said. "About a quarter of the people we asked couldn't come up with anything."

Among those who did, the most common type of answer was travel-related. Flying cars and flying bikes accounted for 6 percent of the total responses, followed by such items as personal spacecraft, jetpacks, "Back to the Future" hoverboards ... and that teleportation device.

About 9 percent yearned to travel back in time, and another 9 percent wished for health-related advances. A robot servant (4 percent) was more desired than world peace (2 percent). And despite all the recent concern about climate change, environmental innovations were first on the list for only 2 percent of the respondents.

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The way Smith sees it, the fact that so many people had a hard time thinking up novel inventions just shows how essential truly innovative thinkers will be for creating the future. "They are inventing new markets that people didn't even realize existed until the inventors came up with them," he said.

The Pew Research Center's analysis was based on interviews conducted Feb. 13-18 among a national sample of 1,000 adults, aged 18 years or older, living in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The survey was conducted by interviewers at Princeton Data Source under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International. Respondents were contacted at random via cell phones and land lines. The results were weighted to reflect demographic patterns as well as telephone status. Margin of error for the total survey sample is plus or minus 3.6 percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence. For further details on survey methodology, see http://people-press.org/methodology.

By Alan Boyle of NBC News

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