Is This What You Call Progress?

Progress used to be thought of — generally speaking — as a positive development, at least in the temporal realm. Who could be against, for example, technological advances in medicine that led to the elimination of such killer diseases as yellow fever, tuberculosis, polio, small pox, diphtheria and others? Few, if any, would be willing to turn back the clock to a life without telephones, trains and planes, washing machines and a myriad of similar conveniences?

Progress became synonymous with positive change. To “stand in the way of progress” was a bad thing, synonymous with backwardness and medieval thinking,

Furthermore, progress was thought to be inevitable. “You can’t stop progress,” as the saying goes.

But in recent years, progress has hit a snag, as many wonder whether there might be something inherently illogical and self-destructive in embracing every technological innovation simply because it is there.

The awesomely destructive power of modern weaponry took tens of millions of lives in two world wars and numerous regional ones; and so far, the human race has only barely escaped the horrors of nuclear war made possible by progress in the field of theoretical physics.

Lately, people have been reconsidering the internet. Once heralded as an instrument of freedom that could bring down dictatorships, it has become notorious as a vast cesspool of immorality, hate messages and incitement to terrorism.

A less obviously pernicious but nonetheless worrisome development has been automation. Society is menaced by robots taking over the work of people, making business more efficient while throwing millions out of their jobs. Those in the lower tiers of the economy, performing semi-skilled or unskilled labor, seem the most at risk; but better-educated office workers are hardly safe from artificial intelligence that can out-brain any normal human intelligence.

The recently-launched Amazon Go is a case in point. The cashierless convenience store in Seattle presages the end of checkout lines. Shoppers with an appropriate app can “buy” what they want by just picking items off the shelves, putting them in their carts and walking out. Overhead cameras record the selections and add them to a virtual bill.

It’s a wonderful convenience for the stores and the shoppers — but for the more than 3.5 million Americans who work as cashiers, it’s a nightmare. The same is happening in other industries; robots in agriculture and factories are displacing humans at a noticeable rate.

Driverless cars mean just that — no driver. There are about five million people nationwide who make their living driving taxis, buses, vans and trucks. For them, progress is a mixed blessing, to say the least.

The threat is clear. The reality, though, has not been either so clear or so apocalyptic.

Studies conducted recently by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the McKinsey Global Institute indicate that despite unavoidable job losses in some areas, the overall outcome may not be catastrophic at all. It might even be something we can live with, and even better than before.

There is reason to be hopeful, they say, that — as has happened before — as technology eliminates some jobs, it creates others. It won’t be easy, but people can adjust.

For example, occupations such as app developer and drone operator only came into existence in recent years. Data scientist positions in the United States increased 650 percent between 2012 and 2017, according to LinkedIn.

What has happened to bank tellers as ATMs have replaced many of them? They shifted to customer service, and positions requiring higher skills and more education — and with higher incomes (though the proliferation of online banking services now threaten their jobs once again).

Major carmakers have invested billions of dollars in self-driving cars, having convinced themselves and each other that this is the wave of the future; but reports of accidents involving the autonomous vehicles are cause for public skepticism.

Lawmakers will hopefully insist on assurances that this technology is safe enough before allowing it into the marketplace. That may slow down the inevitable march of progress, and give the country time to adapt to the changing reality.

Steven Greenhouse, a journalist specializing in workplace issues, has urged a retraining program for professional drivers — something serious, on a nationwide scale, that will offer them new options in life.

Acknowledging that retraining an entire sector of the economy will cost money, Greenhouse has suggested that in addition to conventional unemployment insurance, they might receive adjustment assistance like factory workers who lost jobs because of imports.

There is something else to take into consideration in the rush to automate the economy:

True, human beings seem to have a number of shortcomings compared to robots: They are slower-thinking, they get tired, they complain, they go on strike. But human interaction is something that artificial intelligence can only crudely mimic. When people go shopping or they travel, they appreciate seeing another human face across the counter or behind the wheel.

The increasingly rapid advent of robotic services will increase the awareness that human employees give value that robots cannot. It is intangible, hard to quantify, but it’s real.

To recognize this, and to find ways to preserve the human element in the workplace, will also be a form of progress.

Maybe it’s true that you can’t stop progress. But maybe, at least to some extent, you can redefine it.