At "the most modern textile plant in the world," in Richmond County, N.C., a persistent chirp fills the cool, quiet and nearly empty corridors.

The chirp is a warning sounded by Prontows, driverless vehicles rolling through the plant on nearly invisible tracks, carrying materials that once would have been trundled back and forth by humans.

Looking like cousins of the "Star Wars" robot R2D2, Prontows are part of a dazzlingly modern, highly productive $45 million Burlington Industries textile plant that represents the "factory of the future" described by industrial planners throughout the country.

The old plant is down the road, closed now. There, some 1,000 workers labored in the heat on dirty, greasy equipment to produce cotton cloth. At the new plant, approximately 750 workers operate cleaner, faster equipment that spews out miles of polyester fabric at volumes three times the rate of the old machines.

The plant's modern looms, which spin polyester using a water jet rather than a traditional shuttle to carry the yarn, have increased productivity and helped reduce the need for workers. "Initially we anticipated 30 looms per weaver. We now have 55 per weaver," said plant manager Dale Ormsby.

A period of explosive technological change lies ahead, producing changes in the nature of work that will be as massive as the Industrial Revolution, and telescoped into an even shorter period of time, according to experts in government, business and universities. But there is no consensus among the experts on whether this newest, strongest wave of automation will produce more new jobs than it eliminates.

In one vision of the future, technology sets the stage for even greater growth in a healthy economy, solves the problems of the long-range slowdown in work-force growth, minimizes dirty and tedious work and creates enough jobs for those who need them. In this vision, former textile, steel and auto workers build robots and Prontows, and displaced goverment workers, printers and grocery clerks enter the world of information processing.

But there is another, much more pessimistic scenario. In the second, a growing group of increasingly bitter, jobless young people find themselves without the skills to do the jobs created by technology and forced to compete with illegal immigrants and refugees for the few unskilled jobs available.

Skilled machinists look befuddled at the computer consoles of new equipment that eliminates their jobs. Working at home, with no one monitoring wages and hours, poorly paid workers are trapped in the "electronic cottage," turning out reams of documents at word-processing terminals.

Meanwhile, in some other country, factories hum with the activity of non-U.S. workers producing the machines of the new technology.

Which of the scenarios most accurately predicts the future? A recent study of automation by the Government Accounting Office ended equivocally: "Whether automation will increase unemployment in the long run is not known . . . . "

What has occurred at Burlington's Richmond plant is a mixture of the two scenarios. The Prontows that eliminated heavy work at the plant are produced by workers in Michigan, an example of the changes in materials handling that are expected to create new production and new jobs for industry. On the other hand, the plant's modern looms are made in Japan; both improvements have increased productivity and helped reduce the need for workers.

A look at North Carolina's textile industry also shows why the impact of automation on employment is so difficult to predict.

The changes that produced the Richmond plant were dramatic and concentrated into a short span of time. Across the state in Gastonia, however, similar changes are taking place in the yarn and thread mills of Ti-Caro Inc. in a slower, more incremental way. If Prontows are a symbol of the Richmond plant, new machines in old frames are more typical of the Gastonia operations.

"It's not a grand piano thing," said James H. Martin Jr., president and chief executive officer of the firm. "It's constant. It's replacement of machinery. It's addition of machinery. It's data processing. It's just a whole combination of things."

It is this common story of steady, piecemeal change that encourages the optimists who hope for a more gradual transition to a new era of automation.

Three decades ago the United States began a tremendous technological revolution that would send millions of farmers and farm workers streaming into the cities. At the same time, the de-industrialization of America was under way and traditional blue-collar America was disappearing. By 1979, manufacturing jobs accounted for only slightly more than a fifth of all jobs.

Despite the massiveness of the changes, the system basically was able to cope. Although some former farm workers moved to the cities and drifted into the ranks of the chronically unemployed, most of them found work. As agriculture contracted, other parts of the economy grew. Government employment grew by 4 percent a year--double the total annual increase in employment.

By 1980, the number of nonfarm jobs had increased by a whopping 77 percent. Wholesale and retail trade had replaced manufacturing as the largest employment sector. The United States had become a service economy and almost half of the jobs were white collar.

In 1960, the two largest unions in the AFL-CIO had been the United Auto Workers and the United Steelworkers of America. By 1980, the two largest unions in the AFL-CIO were the United Food and Commercial Workers (grocery clerks and meat cutters) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employes.

"If you had said two decades ago that by 1980 there were going to be 77.8 million people employed, I don't think people would have believed you," said Jerome Mark of the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics. "There is a chronic underestimation of potential demand--a tendency to think that next year is going to be like this year. Changing technology is not incompatible with expanding employment."

Glenn Watt, president of the Communication Workers of America, tells a story that seems to bolster Mark's point that automation anticipated has often been more alarming than automation accomplished.

Before 1930, there were virtually no dial telephones in the United States. When the telephone industry began introducing the "high-tech" instruments, fear spread rapidly among the operators who placed calls.

"There was a lot of feeling among people who worked in our industry--particularly among operators--that their jobs were being done away with," said Watt. The union sprang to action, establishing the "Dial Conversion Committee" to slow down or stop the introduction of dial telephones. The commitee failed, but with unanticipated results.

"What happened was that, up until about 10 years ago, the number of operators increased. It did not decrease," said Watt. Technology allowed the system to expand more rapidly than anyone had dreamed.

But the capacity of the economy to churn out enough new jobs to meet society's needs will be sorely tested in the years ahead. The most comprehensive attempt to forecast where those jobs will be created is made by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Its lists tell a lot about the process of change in the work place.

In the decade ahead, rapid growth is expected to continue in jobs for white-collar and professional workers and for service workers, just as in the 1970s. By 1990, BLS predicts 12 to 16 million new white-collar and professional jobs will have been created since 1978. Approximately 4.5 to 5.6 million new service jobs will have been added. At the same time, blue-collar workers and farm workers will continue to recede from the scene.

Several things will alter the job mix--demographics and changing consumer demand, short-term rhythms and cycles in the economy, international competition and automation and technology.

Demographics have taken their toll in teaching jobs, for instance. Except for elementary schoolteachers, the world will need fewer educators in the next 10 years. Elementary schoolteachers become the exception because of the baby blip--the baby boom children's children who are just entering school.

While the number of teaching jobs will decline, BLS predicts a major increase in employment in medical and health occupations. That increase reflects several things, according to Ronald E. Kutscher, assistant commissioner of BLS. One is that increased coverage under private and public insurance has increased the demand for services. Another factor is increased income. Medical services are something that consumers spend a higher percentage of their incomes on as their incomes increase.

"Low-income individuals, if not provided medical care, won't pay for it," Kutscher said. The general aging of the population--demographics again--also bodes well for employment in medical and health occupations.

Among service workers, big increases are expected in the food-service occupations, spurred by the continued growth of two-earner families. Employment of protective workers, such as police officers and firefighters, is expected to grow more slowly, in part because the baby boom is growing out of its teens and young 20s and into a more sedate middle age.

The jobs of blue-collar workers, both skilled and unskilled, are jeopardized by long-range technological change and the swings in the economy. A strong recovery in the housing, steel and auto sectors could provide hundreds of thousands of jobs--but that is not yet on the horizon.

International competition has taken a huge bite out of manufacturing jobs in the United States. "This recession has seen imports stay high and take a larger and larger share of declining markets," said Rudy Oswald, research director for the AFL-CIO. "It's hard to feel assured that if the recession ends that is going to be reversed."

In other areas, technology is counted on to produce a flood of new jobs. BLS predicts near doubling employment for data processing machine mechanics and big increases for computer operators, computer systems analysts and office machine and cash register servicers.

One major source of employment in the computer industry--key punchers and other data entry workers--will shrink as equipment increasingly takes over that function. In all, more than a half-million new jobs are expected to be created in those areas, according to BLS.

The largest numbers of jobs are expected to be created in traditional areas--although the nature of many of those jobs will be affected by automation. Nearly 700,000 new secretarial jobs are expected to be created in the decade ahead. Not far behind are nurses aides and orderlies (507,600), janitorial workers (501,200), sales clerks (479,300) and cashiers (452,000).

But at anything close to today's unemployment rate of 9.5 percent, those figures will be dwarfed by the numbers of the unemployed, unemployable and those too discouraged or too indifferent to seek work.

Oswald, director of research for the labor federation, points to several factors that may combine with new technology to make the situation worst than the BLS anticipates.

Besides overestimating continuing employment in the service sector and expansion in the economy, BLS also underestimates the impact of foreign workers, the growth in the percentage of minorities in the work force and growing competition from abroad, Oswald said.

No one has solid figures, but Oswald estimates that foreign workers moving to the United States legally or illegally accounted for nearly half of the growth in the labor force in the past year. Often unskilled or semiskilled and willing to work for lower wages, these workers displace U.S. workers from jobs at the lower end of the spectrum.

Blacks, who have a far higher unemployment rate than whites, will enter the work force in the next 10 years in disproportionately high numbers. The decline in birthrates that followed the post-war baby boom occured later among blacks than it did among whites. As a result, in the next 10 years, 20 to 25 percent of the new entrants in the job market will be black, in contrast to the 11 percent proportion of blacks to the population in general.

If the optimists are right, the changes confronting the work place are promising, rather than threatening. If they are not, then the country faces deep social, political and economic conflicts.