San Francisco — Just what are microcomputers, anyway? What are they going to mean to my life? If you're one of the many people who are asking such questions, there is a new science museum exhibit designed just for you.
It is called ''Chips and Changes'' and it premiered recently at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. In the next two years it will travel to eight other cities.
In the best science museum tradition, the 3,000-square-foot exhibit contains a number of gadgets: computers that read letters aloud; sonar glasses that convert ultrasonic echoes into audible sounds, which the blind can use as a replacement for the red-tipped white cane; robot arms that perform complex tasks; and a chess-playing computer that moves pieces around the board using a mechanical arm.
But for those who take the time to read the accompanying explanations, they introduce the important issues surrounding the impact of computers on society: How will they effect the way people work, play, and relate to one another?
''In general, science museums tend to be pro-science and technology. Many have exhibits illustrating how computers work, but few deal with the question of the computer's social impact. That is what we have tried to do here,'' says Wendy Pollack of Association of Science and Technology Centers, which organized the $500,000 effort.
The exhibit's real message, says Pamela Rogow, who codesigned it, is that ''this is a real revolution.''
The display is divided into different pavilions that cover various aspects of the computer revolution. The first area looks back at past technological innovations, such as the printing press and the electric motor, which have significantly affected daily life. A second discusses how the microprocessor - the computer on a silicon chip - is made. Another introduces the basic concepts behind computer programming.
Two-thirds of the show is made up of exhibits that illustrate how computers are being used: the automated office, electronic information, robots, the factory of the future, smart tools, health and medicine, educational games, and computers in the home.
The final pavilion discusses various opinions on what the future will hold. Is it possible to make truly intelligent computers? What will happen as experts produce ''expert'' programs that can emulate an increasing number of human skills?
''This is an area where science fiction comes very close to reality,'' comments Sheila Grinnell who manages the exhibit.
Although most of the money for the exhibit came from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Intel Corporation, the inventor of the computer chip, is cosponsor and a number of other computer companies are supporting the effort.
In the next two years, Chips and Changes will be appearing in science museums in Portland, Ore.; Chicago; Richmond, Va.; Boston; Philadelphia; and Durham, N.C. Originally, it was also to have run in Dallas and St. Paul, Minn. But these two cities dropped out, partly because it is relatively expensive to host, and have tentatively been replaced by Seattle, and Lansing, Mich.