Robots Are Coming - Are They Us?

AT 2 p.m. on a Sunday, most of the passengers on a Boston-bound plane appear tanned and relaxed, savoring the pleasures of a summer weekend. But scattered among them is another breed of traveler - industrious businessmen and women already getting a head start on the coming work week. At the front of the cabin, a man in a sport coat peers into an appointment book as he places a call on the Airfone. Another Sunday laborer, his tray table overflowing with computer printouts, punches a calculator with grim determination. A few rows behind him, a journalist with a deadline taps out a story on a laptop computer.

By 1990 standards, these high-tech gadgets offer opportunities for high-altitude work undreamed of a decade or so ago. But within the next few years even today's state-of-the-art apparatus will seem like kids' toys as technological advances make the flying office ever more sophisticated.

Last month Motorola announced plans to build a phone system that will operate anywhere on Earth, from the North Pole to Antarctica. Within six years workaholic airline passengers will be able to receive calls at 35,000 feet.

At the same time, COMSAT is crowing over the impending arrival of in-flight faxing services, along with airborne phone calls so clear they will ``sound as if they were made from your office. And within a year, the company promises, they will ``even make it possible to link you up with a laptop.''

The result, according to the company's ads, is that ``now you'll be able to remain in constant communication even while in the air. And that's important. Because when you're out of touch, you're out of control.''

The same philosophy drives hard-working patrons of tony beauty salons in New York, Chicago, and Beverly Hills to show up with attach'e cases filled with laptop computers, portable phones, and portable fax machines when they squeeze a haircut or blow dry into their overbooked schedules. Cutting deals while scissors snip away has become the latest sign of a busy life and a successful career.

For some, obviously, this high-tech wizardry represents a dream come true. For others, it may seem more like a nightmare, leaving them, in fact, ``out of touch'' and ``out of control'' with the areas of life they value the most.

Plugged into the portable office by an electronic umbilical cord, you are tethered to work wherever you go. There is no place to hide from the winking terminal or the buzzing phone.

Beepers hang from the fences of tennis courts and the bags on golf courses. The phrase ``off duty'' loses its meaning and its sweetness.

Using time productively is a worthy goal. But it would be a sad irony if the same equipment that offers the potential to liberate workers ended up shackling them to a high-tech ball and chain, turning them into slaves in an electronic sweatshop extended to every home, every car, every playground - and now the sky.

During the '80s, the power breakfast, the power lunch, even the power tea blurred the boundaries between work and non-work. But the sophisticated equipment of the '90s threatens to network earth and sky into one seamless workplace, open 24 hours a day.

The dirty little secret of super machines is that they are easier to turn on than to turn off. Thanks to the temptations presented by new capabilities, the stock market will become a 24-hour store in 1992. Last month the three leading American financial exchanges announced the beginning of ``global and continuous'' trading of stocks and options, the result of computer programs that operate nonstop.

The old fantasy - remember? - was that the '90s would usher in the Age of Leisure. There would be hobbies and shuffleboard for everybody - except, of course, the robots who would do all the work.

What a rude awakening!

Now that the cruise to nowhere has turned into a power flight, two questions occur: Who's going to watch the on-flight movies when all the laptop screens are blinking? And if this compulsive plugging-in continues on land, at sea, and in the air, how are we going to tell the humans from the robots anyway?

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