The Conversation

Poll: Drones Are Scary

The Pew Research Center recently conducted a "future shock" poll to learn how Americans feel about various impending technological developments.  The generally serious nature of the poll questions is somewhat undercut by one finding that the technology people most look forward to having is time travel, which probably isn't really on the horizon, no matter how many self-described time travelers we might find skulking about the Large Hadron Collier.  A thousand extra cool points to the Pew Research Center for using the TARDIS from "Doctor Who" to illustrate this poll question, however.

Basically, the Pew poll finds that while people can't wait to get their hands on time-travel technology that could destroy the entire universe, they're afraid of drones.  "63 percent of Americans think opening U.S. airspace to drones would be a turn for the worse," the survey reveals.  Too bad, folks, because that's already happening; the amount of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle activity in America's skies is going to explode over the next few years.  At the end of 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration estimated there would be over 7,500 drones operating over the United States within five years.

There's actually a good bit of robo-phobia evident in the Pew poll, with the driverless car - a very real possibility within the very near future - winning only 48 percent approval, and the long-awaited robot butler desired by a rather modest 8 percent of middle-aged respondents, and only half that many younger people.  Perhaps some of this is due to apprehension about automation making human labor obsolete, an understandable concern among young people facing hideous levels of unemployment.  

But no future tech seems to repel people as strongly as the one right on their doorstep - drone aircraft.  This might be partially due to the lethally efficient performance of drone strike aircraft in the War on Terror; even though drones in American airspace would not be armed (promises the government we've all grown to trust so much!) people are still sincerely unnerved by the merciless efficiency of UAV surveillance.  Perhaps growing distrust in government is a contributing factor to apprehension about drones, the roving eyes of the Surveillance State.  (The poll also suggests people dislike being examined by computer-enhanced human eyeballs, with 53 percent saying the rise of data-delivery systems such as Google Glass are a change for the worse.)

Robots also have to overcome human fears about their lack of judgment.  Despite all the technical prowess of computer-controlled aircraft, and the fact that much of commercial aviation is automated anyway, people feel nervous about the idea of a completely automated vehicle zipping by over their houses... perhaps making some calculation error that would send them crashing through a bedroom window.  There's a comfort level to having a human on board - reflected most remarkably in the number of people who evidently prefer human drivers to automated vehicles, even given the frequently appalling performance of the former.  It might even be said that apprehension over devices like Google Glass are also based on the fear that they will interfere with human judgment, taking the deadly idiocy of "texting while driving" to a new level.


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