Robots in a land of abacuses: Soviets push into high-tech era

How do you get a nation that counts on abacuses to rely on robots? That is just one of the problems faced by the Communist leadership here, which is trying to push the Soviet Union into the high-technology era at a much faster clip.

In a number of recent newspaper interviews with and articles by top party and government officials, the Kremlin has tried to get the high-tech bandwagon rolling faster. And those who aren't jumping on it have been upbraided.

By now, it's a familiar theme. In previous plenums of the Communist Party's Central Committee, measures to speed up scientific and technological progress have been debated, endorsed, and codified into official government policy -- all without noticeable effect on the Soviet economy.

High-tech and economic output will probably be chief concerns at the plenum planned for Dec. 28.

But Western analysts are not holding their breath for a Soviet technological revolution. Why not?

For one thing, the Soviet hierarchy -- accustomed to central economic planning -- tends to see the failure of high-tech to take hold as a planning problem.

As Gury I. Marchuk put it in a recent Pravda article, "improvement of the methods of planning and management of scientific-technological progress" is key to future economic development. Dr. Marchuk, a Central Committee member, is a deputy prime minister and head of the State Committee on Science and Technology.

Dr. Marchuk's article indicated that using technology in production might well be incorporated into the country's next annual economic plan, which will be approved at next week's plenum. Marchuk said there should be targets for the introduction of high-tech, against which actual performance could be measured. And other officials say technical education needs to be restructured to train engineers to cope with the computer age.

Western analysts are slightly bemused by such pronouncements.

"They just keep thinking the problem is an organizational problem," says one observer. "The problem is much more fundamental."

Some analysts claim that the Soviet leadership has itself to blame for much of the country's technological illiteracy. The Soviet Union already has considerable expertise in the use of semiconductors, microprocessors, and other forms of hightech. But that expertise is almost exclusively confined to the military.

The nonmilitary sector of the economy lags far behind. Pocket calculators, digital watches, electronic games, and personal computers are rarities here. In fact, many Soviet stores use abacuses to total up purchases.

"It [the military] really is pretty much of a separate economy," says another Western analyst, "with very strict quality control."

In his Pravda article, Marchuk said that about 4,000 new machines are introduced into the Soviet economy every year, and another 160,000 are modernized.But, he conceded, "the considerable bulk of the machines still do not meet modern demands. . . ."

In the next five years, he says, the state will produce "more than 100 models of automatic manipulators and automatized technological units" -- apparent references to automatic assembly machines and industrial robots.

Already, the Soviet Union claims to produce eight models of industrial robots at the Kuzrobot Technological Institute in Taganrog, in southwestern Russia. An official said in a recent newspaper interview that these are produced in "impressive numbers," but gave no figures.

But some Western analysts believe there have been severe problems in introducing robots into Soviet factories. For one thing, there is a shortage of technicians able to maintain them. For another, some managers are said to be resisting their introduction.

One reason is that robots, like other forms of modernization, may temporarily disrupt the routine and cut output -- causing factories to run afoul of the central economic plan. Another reason, says one Western analyst, is that some plant managers' salaries are tied to the number of people they supervise. Thus, there is absolutely no incentive to automate and cut personnel.

The question of reducing manpower by using machines is sensitive here indeed -- especially since the Soviet Union claims to be a "workers' state."

Soviet officials are touchy about this point. In an interview, Kuzrobot institute director Gennady Kuzmin stressed that the robots "have released thousand of people from monotonous and sometimes very hard work."

But he insisted Soviet automatons merely "free workers," whereas those in the West put them out of jobs.

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