The ''auto age'' took modern society into realms not foreseen with the Model T - the creation of the commuter suburbia, for example. Now we find ourselves at the threshold of a ''computer age,'' which is already making accelerating demands for change in society. As is increasingly clear to many experts and officials within the multibillion-dollar US computer industry, the advent of the computer may be adding up to more than just a ''second industrial revolution,'' as some analysts had anticipated only recently.
Shortly, with the development of fifth generation computers that can ''think'' and follow oral commands, technology may well be facing a second and third industrial revolution rolled into one. Just consider: The Pentagon is now planning a computer that could whirl out computations at a rate of 1 trillion operations per second by the end of the century - up from current speeds of a not so stodgy 500 million operations per second.
Precisely because the implications of the computer age are so awesome, yet still so unknown, it is imperative that government and industry leaders in the United States make every effort to ensure that the US remains at the very forefront of computer technology.
More is at stake than national prestige. The issue is one of ensuring that the US retains its economic momentum, as well as protecting its very security.
A number of industrial nations that are far more politically centralized than the US are shaping national policies to further their own computer industries. That is particularly true for Japan, where the government has mounted a concerted effort to win a significant chunk of the fifth generation supercomputer market, as well as focusing on supercomputer research and development. Many experts believe Japan intends to eventually be first in computers, just as it targeted and overtook US consumer electronic industries.
What should be US policy regarding computers?
* Congress should give full support to a new five-year $600 million program planned by the Pentagon to develop a fifth-generation supercomputer. Knowledge from the program would benefit all areas of the economy, just as technology spinoffs from the federal space program have benefited private industry.
* Congress should exempt limited partnerships in research and development from antitrust action - as well as provide favorable tax treatment for such partnerships. A number of bills would do just that.
* States and local school systems should take steps to provide that each school has a personal computer available for students. As noted on these pages recently by Thomas W. Miller, a vice-president of Control Data Corporation, ''within 10 years, a person without some fundamental understanding of computers will be as limited as the person today who can't read or write.''
* Families who are fortunate enough to have personal computers at home should encourage their children to become familiar with these machines. Some studies suggest that a gender gap may now be developing, since most children's computer games are action-oriented and geared to boys. Girls should also be encouraged to become expert about computers.
* US firms in the personal computer market - where a major industrywide shakeout is now under way, with IBM emerging as an industry leader - have a particularly difficult challenge of mustering up that sense of entrepreneurship that will guarantee the survival of the firms. It would be unfortunate if the diversity now found in the personal computer industry were to end. Corporate officials might be well-served by studying the success of firms in the business computer area that have managed to survive - despite IBM's equally enormous industry dominance.