EVERY GENERATION or so since the Industrial Revolution, the technological alarm has been raised. A new wave of automation, it is warned, will soon descend upon us, leaving millions of displaced workers and distressed communities in its wake. In fact, these inundations do occur, and the consequences for some people's lives are substantial. Northern cities, for example, are still to some degree trying to absorb the descendants of the workers displaced by farm automation decades ago. The larger economy, however, moves onward with scarcely a surface ripple.
Now we are told that a new revolution is upon us. At its heart lies the tiny computer--the microprocessor, as it is known in the trade--that can process and store vast quantities of data in areas no bigger than a dime and at a fraction of the cost of 10 years ago. In the leading companies, computers are beginning to invade every phase of the production process--equipment design, ordering of raw materials, production control, quality checking and so on. On the assembly line itself, thousands of robots are elbowing aside skilled and semi-skilled workers. The robots vary in sophistication from the glorified machine tools on big assembly lines to the borderline humanoids that can "see" and "feel" their ways through a variety of tasks previously reserved to the uniquely adaptable human.
No one is predicting how fast the revolution will proceed. However, even before the new tax bill was passed with its presumably stimulative investment incentives, capital spending for automation was up sharply. Within a decade it is possible robots will replace several million factory workers. The inroads into the service sector may be still greater as computers take over the jobs of bank tellers, clerks, stenographers and even computer programmers-- computers can, after all, program other computers.
Before you apply your sledgehammer to the nearest computer, remember that automation can bring many benefits. Robots can do many backbreaking, dangerous and thankless jobs with whatever passes for the electronic equivalent of a smile. Higher productivity and better quality control can raise standards of living and protect other American jobs from foreign competition. Nor is a wholesale loss of jobs likely. As the demand for semi-skilled office and production workers falls, the need for a new class of workers will increase--the people who tend to the needs of robots, for example. Some of these new jobs will require advanced degrees, but many others can be done by high school graduates with some technical training. Continued strong growth in the service sector and a drop-off in the number of youths entering the labor market in this decade could fill the gap between old jobs and new.
The transition, however, will place a strain on everyone involved. Large employers may ease matters by retraining displaced workers, involving workers in the conversion process and redesigning jobs to ease the new boredom of baby-sitting automatons. But many laid-off workers and new job-seekers are likely to end up in lower-paying jobs or on the unemployment lines. Long before the new wave of automation it was clear that the country's education and training systems failed to provide many youths and displaced workers with the skills and discipline they need to function in a modern economy. Whether the robots now entering our lives bring with them new prosperity or new hardship for many people will depend crucially on how quickly and well this failure can be remedied.