Americans Are Afraid of Biohacking, Even When It’s Good For You

A new survey from Pew Research Center underscores America’s technophobia.

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Jul 27 2016, 8:21pm

Image: Flickr/GLAS-8

Biohacking technology like CRISPR, smart-retinas, and drug delivering nanoparticles could help people live longer and become stronger. But most Americans want "human enhancement" to remain firmly in science fiction, and out of the real world.

A new public survey conducted by Pew Research Center revealed the majority of Americans are more worried than excited about biomedical technology. The nationally representative study polled more than 4,700 adults about three specific biohacking concepts: gene editing, brain chip implants, and synthetic blood. Even when these innovations were described as beneficial to human health, more than half of respondents expressed distrust and wariness toward their potential use.

As biomedical technologies become more sophisticated, people are spending more time debating how they should be used, said lead author Cary Funk, an associate director of research at Pew Research Center, in a statement.

"This study suggests Americans are largely cautious about using emerging technologies in ways that push human capacities beyond what's been possible before."

When it came to gene editing that would reduce the risk of disease in babies, 68 percent of Americans said they were "very" or "somewhat" concerned about the technology's implementation. Brain chips that might improve concentration or cognitive abilities garnered a negative response from 69 percent of those surveyed. And synthetic blood, which could one day make humans stronger and faster through increased oxygen levels, was disliked by 63 percent of study participants.

The survey was aimed at measuring public perception of technology that's still nascent, or used only for therapeutic purposes, such as injury recovery. Right now, according to the study, none of the three examples are commercially available for human enhancement. When people were asked if they believed these developments would be prematurely released, 73 percent responded "yes," with regard to gene editing and synthetic blood, while 74 percent felt the same about brain chip implants.

"I think a lot of the fear about genetic engineering stems from what people have previously heard, and whatever incomplete understanding they have, about genetically modified organisms," Dr. Patrick Blackburn, a geneticist who specializes in rare disease research, told me.

"I feel like a lot of these new technologies get lumped together, and the mindset is, 'GMOs are bad,' rather than, 'what can these technologies and do for me, and for the betterment of humanity?'"

That perception can depend on a person's worldview. One of the most striking trends the survey revealed was the relationship between religious commitment and the willingness to embrace biomedical technology. The more religious a person was, the more they perceived human enhancement as meddling with nature. Approximately 64 percent of respondents believed that gene editing, for the express purpose of delivering healthier babies, crosses a moral and ethical line.

Other trends, however, underscored more concrete concerns about biohacking and inequality. For example, 73 percent of Americans anticipate that brains chips—which might only be accessible to those who can afford them—will increase the divide between the wealthy and the poor, elite and underprivileged. And 63 percent of people felt that recipients of synthetic blood will deem themselves superior to others. People are concerned that genetic modification, and the way it's accessed, could widen the gap between the haves and have-nots.

Right now, these concerns are mostly speculative, and it would be a mistake to let them impede scientific progress. If anything, studies like this can help steer human enhancement away from the fears of a dystopian future, and toward something more evidence-based.

"Public perception can definitely affect the type of research that we can do, in the form of federal regulation—think about what happened with stem cells under President George W. Bush—but, so far, there has been very little federal regulation of these new genome engineering technologies in the research lab," Dr. Blackburn added.

"I don't think many people realize there has been such a sea change in our understanding and ability to edit the genomes of humans, and pretty much anything else that has DNA."