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."

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.

Another workplace being transformed by computers is the office. For several decades the productivity and the equipment of the office worker have remained relatively static. Now the development of computers which handle and store written material, called word processors, is changing this.

Some 100,000 of these machines, which can double typing efficiency, will be installed this year, Norman reports. And annual sales are expected to double by 1983.

Many people find this prospect fearful. A fierce debate on the subject is raging in Europe but has not yet spread to the United States, despite the fact that this country leads the world in microelectronic development.

"Fears of massive unemployment have greeted technological changes ever since the Industrial Revolution," the Worldwatch paper observes. "Far from destroying jobs, however, rapid technological advance has generally been accompanied by high rates of job creation. . . . Yet there is good reason to take seriously the recent outpouring of concern that microelectronic technologies will have a fundamental impact on both the number and types of jobs in the industrial world in the coming decades."

This is because of the pervasiveness of the new technology, he explains. No technology in history has had such a broad range or potential applications in the workplace.

While growth in the electronics industry will create jobs, this will be offset by the job lost through automation.Also, electronic devices typically are made of far fewer parts than the machines they replace, adding to the prospect of reduction in manufacturing jobs.

"The development of microelectronics is coming to fruition at a time of sluggish economic growth and a record postwar level of unemployment in many Western industrial countries. it is this gloomy economic environment that makes the technology at once promising and threatening.

On the one hand, it offers the prospect of enhanced productivity and the chance to revitalize some economic activities. But on the other hand, it threatens to aggravate unemployment in some industries and to reinforce the structural divisions that have been growing in the industrial countries during the past few years, as youth unemployment has climbed to epidemic levels and joblessness among blue-collar workers and heavy industries has risen sharply," the study observes.

Despite these problems, Norman warns against a "Luddite resistance" to this new technology. Because of its potential for increasing productivity, those nations that do not pursue the new electronics vigorously risk much higher unemployment than those that lead the way. Of particular concern are the developing nations, whose traditional advantage of cheap labor may be threatened.

enlightened government policies can serve to subsequently ease the transition , Norman believes.

"The transition to the electronic age will . . . require policies designed to deal with technological unemployment in addition to those that support high-technology industries."

The resulting increases in productivity can mean higher profits and earnings for the few, Norman says, or lighter workloads and higher living standars for the many.

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