THE JAPANESE have finally gone and done it.

They've built a factory in which, untouched by human hands, robots make robots. From the initial delivery of parts and materials, through the stages of cutting, grinding, molding, casting, welding, assembling, painting and packaging, to the final warehousing of the finished product, machines do all the work. The "offspring" of this process are now being installed in American factories where they soon will be making cars, tractors, jet planes and nearly every other manufactured product currently made by the hands of men and women. In the near future, automation will start even prior to the manufacturing stage of production: Miraculous computers are now capable of actually designing products and then "sending orders" to robots on the shop floor telling them what to make and how to make it.

Changes of this magnitude are always mixed blessings. The 19th-century Industrial Revolution, for example, ultimately led to the great advances in living standards, social equality and democracy, but along the way a heavy price was paid as workers were exploited, traditional community values broke down, and Dickensian slums proliferated. From what we can tell, America is on the verge of a second industrial revolution, made possible--indeed, compelled by --the computer in its many manifestations.

The benefits to the nation promise to be impressive. The advances in productivity provided by the new technologies are likely to increase America's standard of living, make the economy less inflation-prone and, perhaps, make our industry once again competitive in world markets. Machines will also relieve humans of almost all dirty, dangerous, strenuous, menial and repetitive tasks.

Unfortunately, this general upgrading of jobs comes with a negative side: The new technologies are beginning to erode the already poor employment prospects of the disadvantaged. While the coming wave of automation probably will not reduce the total number of jobs, it will decrease dramatically the number of lower-level jobs that typically go to the least-educated workers.

This forthcoming revolution is not a matter of if, it is quite simply a question of when. While the current, prolonged recession has slowed the introduction of the new technologies, it has not altered industry's long-range automation plans. For example: before the recession, General Motors had planned to be as fully automated as its Japanese competitors by the end of the 1980s. But as soon as the economy turns around, and capital starts flowing again into corporate coffers, GM and every other industrial giant will probably convert their cash into new machines, not into hiring new workers.

But there is no reason why we need stand by helplessly and watch our most vulnerable citizens victimized by the onrush of technological progress. The only policy that can protect them in the long-run is to begin educating them to enjoy the fruits of the second industrial revolution. The years to come will see tremendous demand for knowledge and information workers: analysts, engineers, scientists, technicians, managers and the like. Unfortunately, America is failing to educate an entire class of citizens to realize these occupational opportunities. In the current system, general, basic, liberal educations are provided to the children of the privileged, who then are able to pursue advanced, specialized education in preparation for good jobs. In contrast, narrow vocational education is given to the children of the disadvantaged, who then enter the kinds of jobs that technology is eliminating. This system has always been undemocratic and unjust--now it is becoming economically untenable as well.

The only hope for the disadvantaged is for them to learn to read, write and compute so they can then acquire the skills needed for the jobs of the future. Soon, there will only be work for those who have the skills of speaking, listening, observing and measuring, and the confidence to use their minds to analyze and solve problems. Those who will succeed in the workforce will be those who have learned how to learn--the unthinking jobs all will be done by machines. The French have anticipated this phenomenon. They have remade their once class-segregated educational system into a single-track in which all children now receive the same basic liberal education that was, until recently, preserved for only a privileged few. This new system complements a national effort to be an the forefront of the computer revolution.

The Japanese, too, have anticipated the age of automation. Recently, they have outpaced us in providing high levels of basic education to all their children and youth. Consequently, Japanese workers and unions welcome the introduction of labor-saving technology. Unlike Americans, the well-educated Japanese workers are able to be rapidly retrained for better jobs when their current jobs are automated. Domestically, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction, compounding the undesirable side-effects of automation. For example, there are now misguided calls for increased high school vocational training of industrial workers. (We never seem to learn: After the Watts riots, the federal government trained young, black Angelenos to be elevator operators--oblivious, as late as 1967, to the inevitable dominance of the automatic elevator.

Vocationalists go wrong, in part, because they cling to an outmoded assumption that the typical worker is, and will continue to be, a lathe operator (or some other factory or manual laborer). While the assembly line worker was the representative employe of the industrial revolution, Drexel University's Arthur Shostak suggests that the air controller is the prototypical worker of the future. Unlike factory workers of the past who worked mainly with their hands, air controllers (and similar nonprofessional controllers of machines in factories and power plants) work with their minds. Their computer-based jobs are highly sophisticated, critical to the safety of their enterprises and the public, directly affect productivity, and are indispensable (one can't get machines to make human judgments about other machines). Thus, the worker of the future is not the manual laborer of the vocationalists' imagination, but a "data communicator" with heavy responsibilities--both technical and moral--that require the judgment and analytical skills that are characteristic of the broadly educated person.

Perversely, calls for outdated, vocational training often come from liberals and leaders of minority communities. There seems to be an unspoken conviction among many in these groups that black and brown children can't handle the same educational challenges as whites, and that many nonwhites are uneducable for good jobs. These assumptions overlook evidence coming from the few inner- city schools lucky enough to have teachers and principals who refuse to let students cop out of learning with the excuse that they are disadvantaged. Where teachers demonstrate high expectations of their students, poor nonwhites respond to educational challenge as well as do their suburban, white counterparts. Once they have the confidence that they can learn--and are provided with a sound, basic educational curriculum, minority students quickly form appropriate habits of study and work and develop the language and numerical skills needed in all jobs in the second industrial revolution. One suggested curriculum, The Paideia Proposal, has come along at exactly the moment it was needed.

What educators must avoid is over-reaction. For example, in California Governor Edmund Brown Jr. has called for the remaking of all education into high-tech education. In schools across the state, administrators and principals are directing every spare nickel into computers and software. In a trendy rush to be on the cutting edge of the latest social movement, California's politicians and school administrators are overlooking the fact that computers are tools--albeit powerful tools --but merely tools nonetheless. While students must be trained at an early age to make full use of these tools, it must be remembered that computers are no substitute for sound, basic educational preparation for life's many activities and roles: work, leisure, family, citizenship and lifelong learning. Certainly, there should be a place for a computer in every classroom, as there will be a computer in every aspect of life in the future. Still, the computer must be kept in its proper place. In California, unfortunately, some schools have let the computer drive the educational process. For example, the vocational preparation of computer programmers has been pushed at the expense of liberal learning. Ironically, this has occurred just as self-programming computers are being developed. This is no better than training elevator operators.

There is another related and potentially tragic issue. America has not come to grips with the shorter-term problem of finding work for the many 40- and 50-year- olds whose jobs are being decimated by automation. Hundreds of thousands of factory workers in the auto, steel and rubber industries of the Northeast and Midwest may never again know gainful employment--most certainly not employment at the high pay they once received. These men and women--people who never learned the skills of lifelong learning when they were young--cannot readily be retrained to work in the new semiconductor industries or in jobs in computer maintenance, monitoring or programming. Unless government and industry can find imaginative ways to retrain, even to educate, these people they will face bleak life prospects. And society will face the terrible burden of an angry and dispossessed working class.

More and better education for all is the only policy that can prevent terrible social consequences from accompanying the introduction of the new technologies. Either America must begin now to educate the disadvantaged in the manner it educates the privileged, or expect a nightmare future. For the social consequences of millions of unemployed workers could make the side-effects of the first industrial revolution appear benign in comparison. Fortunately, such consequences for our youth, at least, are not predetermined. They can be avoided if America acts now to make the reform of elementary and secondary education a high social priority.