The third 'industrial revolution': robot factories and electronic offices
Certainly 1984 will have little in common British communications expert Malcolm Peltu has picked this as the year that the much vaunted "information revolution begins."Skip to next paragraph
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The key is intelligent automation; the robots that are moving into the factories are moving into offices as well.
The resulting social impact "could be even greater than that of the original Industrial revolution," according to the National Academy of Science.
This "industrial revolution" is the result of the development of miniaturized electronic components which have greatly reduced the cost of computer power. Electronic components that 30 years ago took up an entire room have been reduced to the size of a cornflake.
These microelectric "chips" hold the promise of greater economic productivity and growth. But they also hold the threat that this growth and productivity will be at the expense of familiar forms of employment.
The shrinking of electronic circuits not only has brought cheap transistor radios, calculators, and digital watches. It also has reduced the cost of computer power by a factor of about 50 during the 1970s, a reduction that many believe has set the stage for a rapid influx of robots in manufacturing and the rise of the automated office in other industries.
Colin Norman of the environmental think tank, Worldwatch Institute, has attempted to grapple with this sweeping topic in the paper "Microelectronics at Work: Productivity and Jobs in the World Economy."
While acknowledging the current attempts to assess the social and economic significance of this new techonology is "akin to forecasting the impact of the automobile on society as the first Model T rolled off the assembly line," Mr. Norman foresees marked differences between the Industrial Revolution and the coming information revolution.
"The development of industrial technology largely enhanced human physical capabilities, enabling people to harness more energy, process and shape materials more easily, travel faster, and so on. But the development of microelectronics extends mental capabilities, for it increases the ability to process, store, and communicate information, and it enables electronic 'intelligence' to be incorporated into a broad range of products and processes," he observes.
Small computers, called micro-processors, already are invading giant industrial plants such as oil refineries, power stations, chemical factories, pulp and paper mills, and steelworks.
Industrial robots, which bear little resemblance to the androids of Star Wars , are making an appearance in assembly lines at automobile plants, appliance factories, and electronics companies. New, more intelligent robots have been developed that "see," a technology that will extend the applicability of robots.
"It is now possible to devise a factory in which computer-controlled equipment carries out an entire production operation," Norman reports.
Today, these industrial robots cost from $35,000 to $75,000 apiece. Yet Joe Engelberger, president of a large American robot manufacturing company, estimates that an average robot "works" for just $4.80 per hour when operated for 16 hours a day. By comparison, the average hourly earnings for production workers in the US are around $7.30 an hour, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.