SHIFT: 6 popular fears, 6 technological fixes

Our culture is driven by fear. Besides our own shadows, we’re afraid of flying, sharks, car accidents, dentists, terrorists, and lots of other stuff. But real-world stats show that most of these fears are completely unfounded; the objects of most of our fears are not nearly as dangerous as they seem.

What is likely to kill us, and what’s not worth worrying about? Can gadgets help our odds of survival? Sometimes technology protects us, other times soothes us, and many times just distracts us from our ultimate demise. Let’s look at a list of the things that scare us the most, assess how dangerous each really is, and then look at the sometimes-futile or occasionally effective technologies that have been devised to alleviate those fears.

Terrorists: Hardly Stopped by Fancy X-Ray Tech
Regardless of how many years we’re under the constant “orange alert,” the real chances of dying in a terrorist attack are slim to none. According to the AEI-Brookings Joint Center, even if there were one terrorist hijacking per week, your odds of perishing in such a conflagration would be just 135,000 to 1. Still, we go through the charade at the airport, grand theater orchestrated by the Orwellian-sounding Department of Homeland Security that’s aided by technology that looks like it’s working but still lets through 60% of undercover agents carrying fake bombs. Perhaps embarrassed by that pathetic track record, the Transportation Safety Administration has already installed “Z Backscatter” X-ray machines in the Phoenix Airport, and plans to install more in JFK Airport in New York as well as LAX in Los Angeles. Never mind that the Civil Liberties Union calls going through the machine a “virtual strip search.”


Sharks: If You Can't Beat 'Em, Taser 'Em
You’re three times more likely to be killed by bee sting than shark bite. In fact, the average number of fatalities per year due to unprovoked shark attacks stands at 4.3 people worldwide. But tell that to the diver staring down at those pearly white shark’s teeth. While some scientists are experimenting with magnetorception that disrupts sharks’ internal guidance system, another company claims its SharkShield repels sharks effectively. However, in tests off the coast of South Africa, a shark seemed to be attracted by the device rather than afraid of it, swallowing the device whole. Maybe you should just carry a cattle prod, or better yet, an underwater Taser.


Dentists: Drills Made Obsolete?
Few people die at the dentist’s office, but many loathe the visit so much they wish they were dead. You might have to keep worrying about going to the dentist for the next decade or so, but after that, dentists may be able to put away those obnoxious drills once and for all. Professor Sally Marshall of the University of California at San Francisco is working on a promising way to get teeth to regenerate themselves. Painting a calcium-rich solution of charged particles on the teeth regrows crystals that make the dentin in your teeth hard as a rock.


Flying: Air Traffic Control 2.0
Over the past few years, we’ve stacked up the safest aviation safety record in history. There have been no crashes of scheduled U.S. airlines since 2001. Still, millions of fraidycats take to the skies every day, white knuckles, bitten fingernails, and all. Perhaps those 501,581-to-1 odds of dying in a plane crash are too close for comfort. It would be hard to imagine anything safer than flying on a plane these days, but how is that possible given the ancient tech behind all that air traffic control? As safe as it is, it’s WWII-era radar technology. Rest easy, though, a $22 billion 17-year-long upgrade is underway. With the new GPS-based Air Traffic 2.0 system, planes will be able to fly closer together and still maintain the safety level of today’s system, hopefully reducing airport delays at the same time. We’re not holding our breath waiting for that one.


Car Crashes: Detour Around Them with Electronic Stability
Okay, this is the one to be afraid of. Motor vehicle deaths average 43,508 per year in the U.S., with your odds of being killed in a year 6801:1, or 87:1 over a lifetime. The solution? Drive sober, and get yourself into the safest car you can find. Our fave super-safe car is the $50K+ Audi A6 pictured above, which the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says is the safest large car (see the whole list of safest cars for 2008 here). The key tech: electronic stability control, reducing crash risk by giving you far better control during panic maneuvers. It makes such a dramatic difference that the institute won’t give a car its Top Safety Pick award without it.


Death: Make the Reaper Wait with Bots and Pills
The fear of death is high on almost everyone’s list, and regardless of the denial factor present in nearly all of us, our chances experiencing it are currently 100%. But not according to inventor, futurist and geek hero Ray Kurzweil, who thinks if he can just live 30 more years, he’ll reach the Singularity, that point where people and machines merge into immortal beings many times smarter than all of mankind combined. Meanwhile, Kurzweil is attempting to extend his lifespan by taking more than 200 vitamin and mineral supplements each day, and receiving mysterious intravenous longevity treatments once a week. While some will say he has the most expensive urine in the United States, the 60-year-old Kurzweil might laugh at all of us as he works out with his body of a 40-year-old by 2038.

Stay Cool
There must be a happy medium in here somewhere. I agree with good old Franklin Roosevelt, who said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." If we keep the odds in mind, peace of mind is ours. Easier said than done. Come to think of it, if the general public had any understanding of the concept of probability, Las Vegas would still be a dusty little one-horse town in the middle of the desert. Still, the more sophisticated technology gets, the safer we are. Until our robot overlords grow tired of us, that is.