The new automation

Suddenly it's here again. Automation. Its new promise and pitfalls are being sounded from the conference halls of Paris to the cover stories of American magazines. The cry is how you, your job, your leisure, your whole way of life may be affected.

For people with memories going back two and three decades, the reaction has to be somewhere-I've-heard-that-song-before. Af-ter all, even the cast of characters is somewhat the same.

Earlier this month, at France's big conference on culture and development, Nobel prize-winning economist Wassily Leontief raised a question often asked in long-gone times: How will working people adjust themselves to being on the job only a few hours a day?

This is the same Leontief who was being quoted on automation more than thirty years ago. Indeed, he then went so far as to suggest that industrially backward countries take the drastic shortcut of moving right into up-to-date automatic plants.

Now business analyst Robert Reich, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, notes that automation has accelerated the trend of high-volume manufacturing away from the US and other industrial countries to low-wage developing countries.

Meanwhile, France has assumed a lead in helping the third world take today's ''drastic shortcut'' - leap-frogging into the computer age without all of the previous industrial revolution's steps along the way.

After a generation the old automation - the speeding of industrial processes through automatic processes and controls - does not seem to have affected most people's lives as much as might have been expected. Old jobs have been lost, new jobs created. Some work weeks have been reduced or ''flexitime'' schemes made possible. But most people with jobs work the familiar full time. There has been a trend to creative, constructive use of leisure. But has the quantity of leisure really become a problem? Does anyone expect the six-month vacations for Americans in 1985 that were predicted in 1968?

The upcoming question is whether the new automation on top of the old will at last bring the advertised results. The technological possibilities now do seem to be of such a difference in degree that they become a difference in kind.

Virtually every line of work is likely to be affected by change. Let us consider only industry. A remarkable cycle has occurred since World War II.

Automation was hailed as freeing industry from having to do things by the batch. It permitted continuous processing. It facilitated mass production, with each item becoming cheaper the more of them that were made.

The new automation, combining robots and quickly adjusted computer control, is hailed for allowing industry to do things by the batch. In other words, computers can carry out changes so easily that making different batches costs no more than making huge quantities with everything the same. It is like mass production of custom-designed products. It permits close and economical control of output and inventory in relation to market needs.

So far Japan is out ahead in implementing this flexible automation, though some American and European firms have shown it is not beyond their grasp, as Fortune magazine associate editor Gene Bylinsky writes in ''The Race to the Automatic Factory.'' Management can hardly afford to be any more old-fashioned than the new tools becoming available. Both resistance to innovation and relentless rivalries need to be overcome. It is encouraging to see some Japanese and US companies, for example, starting to pool talents for development of robots and computers.

Also encouraging is the forethought being given to education for the new automation age. This means at least three things: strong general schooling to equip young people for further thinking and learning in order not to be left behind by change; retraining of displaced workers; continuing education opportunities for all to keep up with their jobs - and to enrich lives that may more often attain Thoreau's goal of having a ''broad margin'' around them.

Yes, these are echoes, too, from the first chorus of America's automation song. But a hopeful history lesson was also noted in those days:

That for a century productivity had gone up. That the same amount of labor now produced more than four times as much. That employment had gone up, too, and by more than six times. That, indeed, most of the present jobs would not have existed without technological advance.

If we are wise, the same can be said after the next century as well.

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