Americans worried about gene editing, brain chip implants, and synthetic blood

July 25, 2016

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Many in the general U.S. public are concerned about technologies to make people’s minds sharper and their bodies stronger and healthier than ever before, according to a new Pew Research Center survey of more than 4,700 U.S. adults.

The survey covers broad public reaction to scientific advances and examines public attitudes about the potential use of three specific emerging technologies for human enhancement.

The nationally representative survey centered on public views about gene editing that might give babies a lifetime with much reduced risk of serious disease, implantation of brain chips that potentially could give people a much improved ability to concentrate and process information, and transfusions of synthetic blood that might give people much greater speed, strength, and stamina.

A majority of Americans would be “very” or “somewhat” worried about gene editing (68%); brain chips (69%); and synthetic blood (63%), while no more than half say they would be enthusiastic about each of these developments.

Among the key data:

  • More say they would not want enhancements of their brains and their blood–66% and 63%, respectively–than say they would want them (32% and 35%). U.S. adults are closely split on the question of whether they would want gene editing to help prevent diseases for their babies (48% would, 50% would not).
  • Majorities say these enhancements could exacerbate the divide between haves and have-nots. For instance, 73% believe inequality will increase if brain chips become available because initially they will be obtainable only by the wealthy. At least seven-in-ten predict each of these technologies will become available before they have been fully tested or understood.
  • Substantial shares say they are not sure whether these interventions are morally acceptable. But among those who express an opinion, more people say brain and blood enhancements would be morally unacceptable than say they are acceptable.
  • More adults say the downsides of brain and blood enhancements would outweigh the benefits for society than vice versa. Americans are a bit more positive about the impact of gene editing to reduce disease; 36% think it will have more benefits than downsides, while 28% think it will have more downsides than benefits.
  • Opinion is closely divided when it comes to the fundamental question of whether these potential developments are “meddling with nature” and cross a line that should not be crossed, or whether they are “no different” from other ways that humans have tried to better themselves over time. For example, 49% of adults say transfusions with synthetic blood for much improved physical abilities would be “meddling with nature,” while a roughly equal share (48%) say this idea is no different than other ways human have tried to better themselves.

The survey data reveal several patterns surrounding Americans’ views about these ideas:

  • People’s views about these human enhancements are strongly linked with their religiosity.
  • People are less accepting of enhancements that produce extreme changes in human abilities. And, if an enhancement is permanent and cannot be undone, people are less inclined to support it.
  • Women tend to be more wary than men about these potential enhancements from cutting-edge technologies.

The survey also finds some similarities between what Americans think about these three potential, future enhancements and their attitudes toward the kinds of enhancements already widely available today. As a point of comparison, this study examined public thinking about a handful of current enhancements, including elective cosmetic surgery, laser eye surgery, skin or lip injections, cosmetic dental procedures to improve one’s smile, hair replacement surgery and contraceptive surgery.

  • 61% of Americans say people are too quick to undergo cosmetic procedures to change their appearance in ways that are not really important, while 36% “it’s understandable that more people undergo cosmetic procedures these days because it’s a competitive world and people who look more attractive tend to have an advantage.”
  • When it comes to views about elective cosmetic surgery, in particular, 34% say elective cosmetic surgery is “taking technology too far,” while 62% say it is an “appropriate use of technology.” Some 54% of U.S. adults say elective cosmetic surgery leads to about equal benefits and downsides for society, while 26% express the belief that there are more downsides than benefits, and just 16% say society receives more benefits than downsides from cosmetic surgery.

The survey data is drawn from a nationally representative survey of 4,726 U.S. adults conducted by Pew Research Center online and by mail from March 2-28, 2016.

Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan “fact tank” that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It does not take policy positions. The center is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, its primary funder.