Microcomputer center in Paris

Just off the Champs-Elysees, the shiny, modern steel-and-glass building appears out of place in this neighborhood of elegant 19th-century belle epoque edifices. Inside, the flashing screens of Apple II computers startle a visitor accustomed to sedate and elegant French interiors.

But the building on Avenue Matignon, home to the new multimillion-dollar World Center for Microcomputer Science and Human Resources, is meant to startle.

Established in January by the Mitterrand government, the center is part of the Socialist government's gigantic research and development program designed to vault the backward French computer industry into competitiveness against the United States and Japan.

Yet the center also possesses the loftier goals of easing the West out of its recession and speeding the third world's development. It aims to do this by designing personal computer systems that will retrain industrial workers displaced by automation and will educate third worlders.

The idea for such a center was first advanced about a year and a half ago by French author and politician Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber in his best-seller titled ''The World Challenge.'' Mr. Servan-Schreiber argued that automation will cause massive unemployment in the West unless new technologies such as computers create jobs. He suggested that third-world countries could use computers as catalysts to leapfrog into the postindustrial information age.

''This is one of the two most exciting things going on in computers today, the other being the development in Japan of the fifth generation computer,'' said the center's director, Nicholas Negroponte, an American professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ''It's as audacious as the decision taken by President Kennedy to launch the Apollo project for putting men on the moon.''

It is also as controversial. Critics are skeptical that such a center can actually develop systems to achieve its lofty goals. Some describe it as ''a pie-in-the-sky effort,'' and Mr. Servan-Schreiber as a dreamer obsessed with computers as a quick fix to complex problems of economic dislocation and underdevelopment.

''The objectives of the center don't seem all too clear to me,'' said a leading French computer researcher who insisted his name not be used. ''It also seems obvious enough that personal computers are not among the third world's most pressing problems--health and food are more important.''

Still, the Socialists have embraced Mr. Servan-Schreiber's plan as part of their arsenal for remaking France. In calling for the center's creation in November, President Francois Mitterrand described the personal computer as a tool that would ''transform the nature of work, create employment, and favor decentralization''--all goals of the new government.

But the center is international in scope. Money is being sought from outside France, with the fund-raising efforts concentrated in the Arab world, Mr. Negroponte said. Computer-science specialists from all over the world are also involved.

At this time, the American contingent seems to be the most active. In addition to the director, Mr. Negroponte, the center's chief scientist, Seymour Papert, is also from MIT. Together, they are running the day-to-day affairs of the center and are largely responsible for the course of its research.

Both are world-renowned computer scientists: Mr. Negroponte in using artificial intelligence to make computers easy for the layman to use; and Mr. Papert as the creator of a highly regarded computer language called logo. ''They are among two of the best,'' said Joel de Rosnay, the director of the applications of research of the Institute Pasteur here.

Their eminence lends credence to the center's ambitious projects. But it has also raised the issue of whether France is stealing American brains to improve its own weak computer industry.

IBM dominates the French computer market, and the Socialists consider improving their domestic computer industry a national priority. To do this, they are plowing large sums of research and development money into it.

Mr. Negroponte does not deny that the world center will aid this development. ''By being here in France, it is only natural that we will help the French computer industry a great deal,'' he said.

He insisted that the center's primary task was its global mission. Education projects are planned for Ghana, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, India, and the Philippines. Also a pilot project is already in operation in Senegal. In France itself, Mr. Negroponte said, the center will focus on projects for training unemployed workers.

All in all, though, Mr. Negroponte and Mr. Papert said they would have preferred staying in the United States to continue their work. But recent Reagan budget cuts slashed their research funds.

''I hope this wakes people up in the States,'' Mr. Papert said. ''For now this is the only place in which we can work.'' In France, ''even the President is personally interested in our work.''

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