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Consumers fear tech will fuel loneliness even as they embrace it

A new Intel study asked adults to share their thoughts about tech in their lives today and 50 years from now. It’s kind of a mixed bag.

It's hard to know what the future will bring, but a majority of US consumers think that five decades from now, we'll all be overly dependent on tech and spend less time interacting with each other.  

At the same time, consumers believe tech makes our lives easier and are most enthusiastic about where things are headed with computers, smartphones and smart home gear.

Those are the top takeaways from a study by Intel that in May asked 1,000 adult consumers in the US -- including 102 described as "tech elites" -- what they're excited and concerned about when it comes to technology over the next 50 years. 

Genevieve Bell, Intel's anthropologist, speaking at Mobile World Congress.

Genevieve Bell, Intel's anthropologist, speaking at Mobile World Congress in 2014.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

If the results seem contradictory, it's because they are. Genevieve Bell, a senior fellow at Intel, futurist and noted anthropologist studying the intersection of tech and culture, thinks that's among the most "interesting findings" from this year's Intel Next 50 study, released Wednesday.

"This is certainly the first study I've seen in the years that we've done these at Intel where ambivalences and anxieties about the future are on a par with excitement," Bell said in an interview.

"We rely on next-generation technologies to connect us to people and to do a whole lot of work," she added. "The flip side is that we do have this interesting ambivalence about, how do we feel about the fact that people have always got a phone in their hands and what does it mean to think about the fact that people bring their phones to meals and to social occasions. … We still haven't sorted that out."

When asked whether our use of tech today will grow into overdependence and lead to social isolation, or whether it will make it easier for people to communicate with each other, 56 percent of consumers said loneliness was their top concern. Tech elites were more optimistic, with only 33 percent calling out social isolation.

All those surveyed, though, were worried about security, privacy and the potential for robots and artificial intelligence to  destroy jobs in the future. Consumers were split on whether faster 5G networks and their promise of allowing us to be "connected to everything" will bring more problems or offer improvements to our lives.

Again, it wasn't all bad news. Consumers were excited about renewable energy, wearables, virtual and augmented reality, and health-related innovations, including genomic medicine and artificial materials for organ transplants. And just 18 percent said they were worried "humans will have to merge with machines to avoid becoming irrelevant." So that's something.

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Bell said the survey highlights our fears, which should prod discussion and debate about emerging technologies.

"The reality is we sometimes dismiss those fears as being naive, and the reality is that humans' fear about technology is part of all conversations about technology," she said. "Will it change the way we are human? Will it change our bodies? Will it change the ways we relate to other people? At the moment I imagine lots of consumers have proof points in their own lives that the current-generation technology interrupts some of the things they care most about -- relationships, being with other people, the social part of our lives."

Asked whether she's optimistic or pessimistic about the future given the survey's findings, Bell said she always gives the same answer. "You have to build the future you want to live in. That worry should be the thing we take seriously as we build the next generation of technology."

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