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The high-tech wave

By Richard M. HarleyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 16, 1982



Cambridge, Mass.

Forecast:

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Slick new computerized automation will transform office work beyond our wildest dreams; the ranks of computerized robots marching into American factories will swell dramatically; computerized teleconferencing will turn the everyday business meeting into a whole new ball game.

But where will we humans be left in all the techno-flurry?

Enter Harley Shaiken and the human-factor researchers. They are sounding some warnings about the American work-place. The same galloping computer revolution that promises leaps in productivity, they say, could also stampede the American dream for millions:

* Computer and robot technologies are creating new jobs for thousands of people, but they're also putting additional thousands out of work. When - if ever - will high technology open up enough new jobs to absorb the displaced?

* Automation is taking over routine manual tasks that once burdened millions of clerical workers. But millions of other workers are being relegated to stifling, equally boring work at computer terminals.

* Teleconferencing - the staging of business meetings over long distances via TV screens - will save time and cut millions of dollars in travel costs. But it could also give the powerful and the photogenic sweeping new advantages.

In the face of such prospects, even a cool-reasoning researcher like Mr. Shaiken finds himself slipping on the prophetic mantle and booming out high-tech jeremiads.

''Surely we cannot just blindly rush these robots into our factories, automate our offices, reorganize management globally with teleconferencing, and only then start to ask how people will be affected,'' he says, sitting in his tidy office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

''We need a full-scale national debate to ensure that the new machine wave supports a brighter future for people, not the other way around.''

The debate has well-nigh begun. To wrestle with new quandaries of the human-computer interface, a new breed of research has sprung into being. ''Human-factor research,'' it's called in high-tech cathedrals like MIT. In the past, the vogue might have been ''computer-factor research'' - but not today, so entrenched is our assumption that computerization is here and that what needs attention is not the machines, but the humans who run them.

Established computer manufacturers like Wang Laboratories Inc. and Digital Equipment Corporation now have percolating new centers for human-factor research where social scientists with PhDs search for ways to make machines more ''user friendly.''

But the critical outcome of the human-computer encounter will be decided in the workplace itself. Will average working people, the researchers ask, get a say in how the new systems will transform their working lives? Will they be given the chance to train for a satisfying place in the high-tech sun? This reporter visited several places where the human-computer interface issues are surfacing with force:

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* Newark, Del. A long steel accordionlike arm reaches out from a rotating turret, halts, dips, swings its swiveling metallic wrist into position alongside a car-body skeleton. Clamping its steel fingers on the roof line, it delivers a loving pinch of soldering fire, sending showers of sparks high into the air, leaving a machine-perfect spot weld.

''Some robot!'' an onlooker exclaims.

Meanwhile, on the receiving end of the sparks, welder Jerry Hammer is not so impressed.A skilled CO2 arc welder who works nearby, he's been keeping a cautious eye on his robotic counterpart here on Chrysler's factory floor for two years.

''I don't really feel threatened,'' he says. ''Automation's coming, and there's nothing you can do about it.''

''But,'' he adds uneasily, ''I guess someday they'll find robots to do my welding, too.''