The high-tech wave


Slick new computerized automation will transform office work beyond our wildest dreams; the ranks of computerized robots marching into American factories will swell dramatically; computerized teleconferencing will turn the everyday business meeting into a whole new ball game.

But where will we humans be left in all the techno-flurry?

Enter Harley Shaiken and the human-factor researchers. They are sounding some warnings about the American work-place. The same galloping computer revolution that promises leaps in productivity, they say, could also stampede the American dream for millions:

* Computer and robot technologies are creating new jobs for thousands of people, but they're also putting additional thousands out of work. When - if ever - will high technology open up enough new jobs to absorb the displaced?

* Automation is taking over routine manual tasks that once burdened millions of clerical workers. But millions of other workers are being relegated to stifling, equally boring work at computer terminals.

* Teleconferencing - the staging of business meetings over long distances via TV screens - will save time and cut millions of dollars in travel costs. But it could also give the powerful and the photogenic sweeping new advantages.

In the face of such prospects, even a cool-reasoning researcher like Mr. Shaiken finds himself slipping on the prophetic mantle and booming out high-tech jeremiads.

''Surely we cannot just blindly rush these robots into our factories, automate our offices, reorganize management globally with teleconferencing, and only then start to ask how people will be affected,'' he says, sitting in his tidy office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

''We need a full-scale national debate to ensure that the new machine wave supports a brighter future for people, not the other way around.''

The debate has well-nigh begun. To wrestle with new quandaries of the human-computer interface, a new breed of research has sprung into being. ''Human-factor research,'' it's called in high-tech cathedrals like MIT. In the past, the vogue might have been ''computer-factor research'' - but not today, so entrenched is our assumption that computerization is here and that what needs attention is not the machines, but the humans who run them.

Established computer manufacturers like Wang Laboratories Inc. and Digital Equipment Corporation now have percolating new centers for human-factor research where social scientists with PhDs search for ways to make machines more ''user friendly.''

But the critical outcome of the human-computer encounter will be decided in the workplace itself. Will average working people, the researchers ask, get a say in how the new systems will transform their working lives? Will they be given the chance to train for a satisfying place in the high-tech sun? This reporter visited several places where the human-computer interface issues are surfacing with force:



* Newark, Del. A long steel accordionlike arm reaches out from a rotating turret, halts, dips, swings its swiveling metallic wrist into position alongside a car-body skeleton. Clamping its steel fingers on the roof line, it delivers a loving pinch of soldering fire, sending showers of sparks high into the air, leaving a machine-perfect spot weld.

''Some robot!'' an onlooker exclaims.

Meanwhile, on the receiving end of the sparks, welder Jerry Hammer is not so impressed.A skilled CO2 arc welder who works nearby, he's been keeping a cautious eye on his robotic counterpart here on Chrysler's factory floor for two years.

''I don't really feel threatened,'' he says. ''Automation's coming, and there's nothing you can do about it.''

''But,'' he adds uneasily, ''I guess someday they'll find robots to do my welding, too.''

In fact, the small crew of robots at Chrysler's Newark plant - 67 of them - is already doing the work that 800 humans could do, says Joe Games, the local head of the United Auto Workers. The worker-robot tradeoff looks even more awesome when you consider that nearly 6,000 of the mechanical beasts have been put to work across the nation.

''Obviously, unless we balance this robot influx with more favorable prospects for the people around them, we're going to have severe problems down the road,'' says Mr. Shaiken, the MIT specialist.

The difficulties are compounded by the fact that robots are not only doing humans out of jobs; they are doing it at a time when business is bad.

When economic times were good, other jobs could easily be found for people displaced by automation. It isn't so easy in today's sluggish economy. And the pressures keep mounting on industry to stretch profits through automating even more.

US industries are planning massive new recruitment of robots to withstand competition from abroad - notably from the Japanese. The latest competitive gauntlet to be thrown down is the slick new 220-robot Nissan auto assembly plant in Smyrna, Tenn. By 1990, General Motors alone is expected to multiply its own 1,600-robot force at least 10 times.

So far, the automobile industry - which boasts half of all industrial robots worldwide - has skillfully sidestepped the human strains. When Chrysler-Newark planned the installation of its 67 robots, for instance, it thought ahead. It assigned robots only to the nastier welding jobs.It created new jobs to install the robots, hiring previously laid-off workers on short-term contracts. With the robots in place, those workers were let go again - and with no complaint. Some new robot-supervising jobs were even created.

But in the long run, that kind of strategy may not work. A far bigger robot invasion is expected in the next decade. Jobs lost could far exceed jobs created, at least for the time being. Ironically, the United States could be hit with a shortage of computer-savvy workers at the same time. The only way to avoid major social dislocations and protest may be a major collaboration on the issue among workers, managers, and university researchers.

One such effort is being promoted by Danny Hoffman, the editor of the newspaper of UAW local 735 near Detroit.

Another has been started by the 1-million-member International Association of Machinists. The union has written a ''Technological Bill of Rights,'' which it hopes to push through Congress next year. Robotics and other high-technologies, the bill says, should be used not only to benefit industry, but also to create and maintain jobs. Rather than decrease the number of jobs, workers should be allowed to work fewer hours for the same pay, it says.

Whatever the fate of the bill, it seems likely that robot-enlisting companies will face growing pressure from the human-factor researchers to justify their enlistments on more grounds than just the need for efficiency.

''The mechanical beasties do have their place, for they can relieve people of terribly undignified jobs,'' says Thomas Sheridan, an MIT professor of mechanical engineering. ''But real hands are wonderful things. I don't want to see them retired too hastily.'' Hartford, Conn.

Julia Hughes used to dread certain meetings. As an analyst here at the Aetna Insurance Company, she had to shuttle 10 miles to a branch office in neighboring Windsor every time she needed to meet her colleagues there.

Then teleconferencing walked into her life.

Aetna installed conference rooms with cameras and color TV screens at both sites to bring the staffs at Hartford and Windsor into full view of each other. Elaborate two-way sound systems allow people in the conference rooms to talk easily to each other. A second screen lets each staff member examine charts.

The only thing missing is something Mrs. Hughes is perfectly happy to do without: the time-wasting, dollar-devouring travel.

Once the privileged toy of top executives, teleconferencing (TC) is now spreading throughout the corporate ranks. It could transform the entire ''game'' by which Americans negotiate and organize their businesses. And game players, warn the researchers, will need to prep themselves on what those changes mean - or be left sitting on the bench.

Companies like Allstate, Citibank, and Atlantic Richfield are drawn to TC not just for its convenience, but also to save mammoth travel costs. (Atlantic Richfield, which spends well over $1 million a week on travel, expects to save 20 percent of travel costs between offices linked by TC.)

As TC systems go, Aetna's video/two-way audio system is quite plush. At the other extreme, are the simple systems that allow people sitting at computer terminals to exchange messages, but not images. Most companies buying TC equipment will probably opt for something in between - especially the one-way video/two-way audio systems, says Martin Elton of New York University's Alternative Media Center.

The Bell System has been quietly preparing its nationwide Picturephone Meeting Service (PMS). The New York-Washington connection got going this summer. By year's end, 15 cities will be linked up, over 40 cities next year. (Current cost: $730 a half-hour for a PMS conference between New York and Washington.)

But what exactly will it all mean for American business?

For one thing, say the human-factor researchers, TC is going to make possible many meetings that were once thought out of the question.

''Even the thought of having to waste five minutes walking to another office used to prevent me from setting up many face-to-face discussions - but not anymore,'' says Wang's Vernell Munson, whose Advanced System Laboratory installed intra-office TC.

Once people grow familiar with TC, even high-stake negotiations may be conducted using it. However, some corporate and government negotiators rely heavily on noting every facial twitch of their counterparts. They may hesitate about TC for some time. Indeed, Bell's PMS system was used in trial runs mostly to exchange ideas, not for hard negotiation, reports Telespan, the monthly teleconferencing newsletter published in Altadena, Calif.

Said one Aetna executive: ''When I pound on the table, I want it to be felt!''

But we're in for the big changes in the gamesmanship by which corporations reach decisions, if you ask Prof. William Dutton of the University of Southern California.

Executives who once communicated with lower ranks only through middle-level managers, may now begin to bypass the middle group altogether, he says. Instead of gathering around the same board table, some chief executives are now ''gathering'' by means of TV cameras and microphones their company directors, who sit at different locations.

The day may not be far off, Mr. Dutton suggests, when executives skilled in pointing cameras and microphones by remote control could manage the outcome of meetings.

''When the telephone was first invented, people thought it would be used mainly to transmit music,'' Mr. Dutton says. ''Teleconferencing is another of those amazingly versatile tools where people will use their imaginations and do all kinds of things we don't expect.'' Lowell, Mass.

As the secretary for one of Wang Laboratories top executives, Josie Di Pietro does her work on one of the most futuristic office systems yet designed by the company.

She still takes dictation, but no longer by hand. She still types her boss's letters, but she doesn't need to spend time typing draft after draft.

The reason: She and her boss are able to collaborate on their joint computer work station. She picks up the system's earphones, listens to what he has dictated into a system telephone, and types the message directly into the system's word processor. He types final changes into his computer keyboard. The system automatically prints out a final draft, and, by the push of a button, Mrs. Di Pietro ''files'' a copy in the instant-recall computer memory. (Metal filing cabinets for paper are veritable dinosaurs in this office.)

''Though I'm doing less professional typing, my work is totally exciting - always new skills to learn,'' says this satisfied, if partial, customer.

Far less enthusiastic, however, is Joan Quinlin, formerly Boston director of 9 to 5, Organization for Women Office Workers.

Thousands of lower-level secretaries and clerical workers have not been so blessed by the computer revolution, she says. These workers, particularly those in banks and insurance companies, are being stationed in impersonal pools of bleary-eyed, terminal-gazing typists performing endlessly repetitive tasks, she says. Often they must process a given number of items each day - supervised by the very machines they operate.

One 1979 study conducted in San Francisco by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health concluded that workers using video-display terminals showed more stress than any other type of worker the institute studied , including air-traffic controllers.

''The office of today could turn into the factory of yesterday,'' Ms. Quinlin says. ''We think technology can be used more creatively to make jobs more interesting and diversify workers' skills.''The concern should intensify in the years ahead, given the coming boom in office-automation sales.

An estimated 10 million of the nation's 50 million office workers now use video-display terminals; one third of all office workers will use them by 1985. Office automation, now a $4-billion-a-year industry, is expected to be a whopping $19-billion-a-year industry by 1995, according to Predicasts of Cleveland, a consulting firm that follows trends in high-tech industry.

Yet one incredulous salesman at Wang Laboratories says that, with but one exception, all the companies that bought Wang office systems in New England this year did so without studying how the new system would mesh (or not mesh) with existing machinery and the needs of their employees.

The key to making office-automation planning work, says Stanford researcher Bonnie Johnson, lies in how company planners see their employees.

''If planners assume that technology is reliable, but people are unreliable, needing to be controlled, the new high-tech office systems will prove to be domineering and stifling to human potential,'' she says. ''But productivity can be enhanced enormously when systems are planned and purchased to fit office workers' needs and office workers encouraged to participate in the planning process.''

One showpiece extolled by the 9 to 5 group is the planning of the East African Division of the World Bank in Washington. It set up a ''quality of work life'' committee composed of clerical, secretarial, and managerial representatives. In the process, management discovered to its surprise that a system of office automation entirely different from the one originally planned was needed. Workers, meanwhile, were offered, to their delight, a varied schedule for rotating on equipment, taking work breaks, and training for new tasks.

''When it comes to bringing high-tech machines into the workplace, we're learning that we can no longer define a 'Cadillac' merely in terms of the newest , the biggest, or the most expensive,'' says Christine Bullen, assistant director of MIT's Center for Information Systems Research.

''The real payoffs - both for workers and companies - now depend on whether the systems they get have the right qualities for the people and purposes of the workplace they enter. Human-factor planning is the new rule.''

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