It began as a Marxist dream. It could end as a nightmare. By mandating the use of robots in factories throughout Eastern Europe, communist leaders had hoped to free even the lowliest worker from dirt and drudgery and turn his energies to more creative tasks.
But the men and machines have rebelled.
''There are problems,'' says Prof. Julian Cooper of the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Birmingham in England.
His studies, supported by reports from inside the Soviet Union and other East European countries, show that widespread resistance from the shop floor and among management have combined with low reliability to leave thousands of robots stacked up in factories and warehouses throughout the Soviet bloc. There is little hope they will be used in the near future.
The Soviet leadership hoped for the rapid spread of robots and other automated equipment across the country to help modernize industry and increase productivity. They also thought the use of robots would help counter the growing labor shortage in the country. Professor Cooper says the Soviet leadership has plans to increase the robot ''population'' in the USSR from about 25,000 today to more than 100,000 in 1990.
Yet many robots stand idle because Soviet managers have refused to put them on production lines, according to the Soviet Communist Party daily Pravda.
Breakdowns have been common. Post-delivery maintenance was poor. There was a shortage of trained staff. And in some cases, grass-roots resistance was so strong that the use of robots would have provoked revolt.
One report says managers at factories in Lugansk, Baku, Ulyanovsk, and Dzhankov disconnected the robots sent to them by their superiors. Another says that robots had to be enclosed by wire mesh in some factories to protect them from sabotage.
Pinpointing the number of robots in the rest of Eastern Europe is difficult, according to Cooper. But reliable reports, he says, suggest East Germany may have the largest robot ''population'' in the world - more than 25,000, compared with about 13,000 in Japan (although Japan uses a much wider definition of ''industrial robot'' than anyone else) and about 7,000 in the United States.
The Czechoslovak government has introduced price subsidies to encourage the use of robots, with production and installation expected to reach 13,000 by the end of this decade. Some reports, however, say reliability problems could dampen that ambition. Those reports claim that Czech robots need attention after being in operation for as few as 80 hours.
Bulgaria's experience with robots, meanwhile, provides one of the Eastern bloc's few examples of how Western restrictions on technology transfer to the East have actually accelerated industrial development.
Seven years ago, the Kamaz truck plant in the Soviet Union (the largest in the world) was set to buy gantry-type robots from West Germany. But the sale was embargoed by the West. The Russians turned to Bulgaria - a country that had excelled in simple electronics but produced few robots. Their Beroe robot plant in Stara Zagora manufactured all the robots needed by the Kamaz factory (also known as the Kama River plant).
While robotics still represent only a small part of Bulgarian industry, there is considerable hope for the Beroe plant. This is at least in part due to the important role in robotics development given to Bulgaria by its trading partners in the East bloc. About 60 percent of the plant's production is exported, mainly to other Comecon countries. Plant officials point to growing interest in the West, particularly in Britain, in Bulgarian robots.
And pressure from the US to tighten controls on the sale of robots to Soviet-bloc countries - on the grounds that they may enhance Soviet military buildup - can only help the Bulgarian cause, officials argue.
''We are still trying to buy technology from the West,'' says a Beroe plant executive, ''but (US President Ronald) Reagan is complicating matters. Nevertheless, he may be doing us a favor in pushing us to develop things more quickly than we would otherwise have done and making us more independent.''
Professor Cooper suggests that the East Europeans may be having particular difficulties with their robot programs because they are following the ''Japanese path without having the Japanese expertise.''
While other Western countries have concentrated on manufacturing a relatively small number of technologically sophisticated robots, the Japanese have pressed ahead, producing a large number of less sophisticated machines in a relatively short period of time.
''For the Soviets,'' says Cooper, ''this aggressive Japanese-style approach may not produce terribly positive results in the short term but could have significant long-term benefits, providing widespread experience with robots rather quickly.''