Cosmos pulses to life, jerks forward, moves down, then swings up and down, up and down, over and over, effortlessly and accurately.

"He gets an accuracy rate of fifty-thousandth of an inch repeatedly," says his operator. "They have built machines even more accurate, and that's incredible."

Cosmos, an industrial robot designed to do the dirty, dreary, sometimes dangerous things like welding cars that people now perform on American assembly lines, is one of technology's answers for greater worker productivity of tomorrow.

Instead of blue-collar workers, America will have iron-collar ones.

What happens to the real workers they replace? What jobs will be available? Perhaps most important, how can old industrial workers be retrained for new technology jobs?

The questions are not academic. They carry urgent personal, political and economic implications.

They will become even more critical after this recession/depression ends.

What comes through most strongly on this long trip around America is that millions of Americans are facing fundamental and perhaps permanent changes in the sort of work they will do in the future.

South Carolina's experience reinforces those impressions. Here, another place battered by the economic slump, these complicated national questions surround almost everyone.

As Cosmos moves smoothly through its paces in Greenwood, about 50 miles northwest across the rolling Piedmont, the American Textile Equipment Manufacturers Association opens an exposition in Greenville.

About 70 percent of the equipment on display comes from outside the United States: Japan, West Germany, Italy, England, France.

"Here's this American association bringing in all these foreign imports," said a man close to the U.S. textile industry, "and the reason is American manufacturers have not kept up with the technological changes. The same is true all across the board of American industry. Either we address that as a country or we'll find ourselves in the same position as many other less developed nations."

About the same time, a few blocks away in Greenville, a soup kitchen starts serving the line of men, women and children entering St. Andrew's Episcopal Church.

"From Jan. 5, 1982, through this July we served 4,465 more guests than we did in the same period the year before," said Pat Rehling, soup kitchen director. "We began to notice the change in our trend line last November. That was when we really began to pick up the people who are newly unemployed, the people who needed to come here just for a meal. I've not done our figures lately, but I'd say it's increasing at about a hundred a month. They've been employed and suddenly they are not."

At the back table, neatly set by the cheerful volunteer workers in the church annex, two middle-aged white men, in workmen's clothes with billed caps tugged over their faces, are bent over their soup, peanut-butter sandwiches and cupcakes.

The sandy-haired man, slim and sallow, glances up, then keeps his gaze downward on his soup. He doesn't want to speak. The other, black-haired, a certain hard bitterness about him, says he's 46, a textile worker who has been unemployed for nearly a year. He doesn't want to talk much, either. But he does say:

"There are a lot of people sleeping on the streets, a whole bunch of people, that haven't been sleeping there before."

South Carolina, like other areas visited, grapples with the new realities daily. It isn't that South Carolina has failed to prepare for the future. For years, the state has aggressively courted new industry and has succeeded in getting it. And, much more than most, it has attempted to deal with the questions of technology and retraining.

Now, with the state's unemployment rate standing at over 11 percent, with Greenwood's rising above 14 percent, with new layoffs and plant closings being announced around the state regularly, with textile industry leaders talking about the loss of 40 or more percent of their work force, the economic questions take on a sharper edge.

"Our industry is going through what other American industries are going through," says Bob Coleman, head of Greenville's Riegel Textile Corp., internationally recognized as a leader of the U.S. industry. "We're not suffering as badly as forest products, autos and steel, but we're suffering.

"I think we are indeed in an industrial adjustment, not just in the U.S. but in the European community as well. One of the real problems we are going to have is how are we going to employ a hundred million people if we don't have basic industries? We have reduced employment in our own industry from 1.5 million to 750,000, for example."

The recession is causing reassessment not only of long-term economic trends, but of the current political situation as well. Two years ago, South Carolina went for Ronald Reagan. It's doubtful it would today.

"The more I've looked at it," says Greenwood Mayor Thomas D. Wingard, "the more complicated I realize the whole system is. So many of the things Reagan said during the campaign made sense. It was a very logical sequence of solutions to problems that seemed obvious to me.

"Thus far he has proven it's not that simple -- and it's not simply Congress and it's not simply the previous administrations. It's business. It's the economy. It's not really as manageable as he explained it and made a lot of people believe it was.

"The biggest thing that concerns me is the conflict in his statements over domestic spending cuts versus spending for defense. I see no need to defend ourselves against an unknown that may or may not exist. I just am not one who believes the world is bound and determined to destroy itself.

"I think we need to put a curb on spending, but I don't see any fix until we cut our deficits. As long as those deficits keep occurring, then the short-term indicators are, as far as I'm concerned, false indicators. Now I don't say cut everything a certain percentage, but I don't see escalated defense spending. It's not necessary."

Larry Jackson, president of Lander College in Greenwood, expresses concern from a different perspective.

"I feel very strongly there are many reasons for keeping the social programs in place other than social justice. I would defend them all on the question of justice, but I think a pragmatic social stability argument is just as valid.

"It's not whether we can afford them. It's whether we can possibly not afford those programs. They are not luxuries. They have assured our own stability. We cannot enjoy a high standard of living unless we maintain stability by assuring a basic level of living for everybody. I think that is threatened.

"If the people who control production in this country want to keep the very ample benefits they are now receiving, they'll have to pay to keep these programs in place. I could make an equally impassioned plea because I think justice requires them, but I also think stability and our own self-interest requires us to keep them in place."

Jim Regh, director of the Robotics Resource Center at Greenwood's Piedmont Technical College, adds, "One of the things that has not been addressed yet is what is going to happen when all these robots get out on the production lines ?

"A number of studies -- Carnegie Mellon did one -- have looked at the effects of automation, with robots being a part of that, and their figures are pretty dramatic. Take their numbers, which were for low-technology robots, the kind you buy in large quantities today. If my memory serves me correctly, they're talking about 15 to 16 percent of the jobs in heavy industry.

"Now you take these new robots that are being built, that could be classified as high-technology robots, and something like 40 percent of those jobs can be done by machines by the late 1980s. In other words, you're getting to some extremely high numbers of people that are going to be permanently displaced unless they can be retrained.

"Then you look at the number of people that are displaced per robot. According to some studies done at Volkswagen in Germany, it works out to a 5-to-1 basis: for every robot you put in you create one job and you lose five.

"So if the world population of robots reaches the numbers they are predicting, we've got ourselves a heck of a retraining problem. That's the area that really needs to be addressed. How are we going to train these people to handle this kind of a situation? And that has not been addressed at all at the national level."

Not only American workers, whether in the auto assembly lines of Detroit, the lumber mills of the Pacific Northwest or the textile mills of the South, are going to be affected. The managerial ranks of those industries also will undergo permanent change.

"You need far less line supervisors to supervise robots than you do people," said John C. Richter, personnel manager of a Cincinatti Milacron Inc. plant producing robots in Greenwood. "So this is not going to be something that affects only factory workers. It's going to go right up into the management ranks.

"And it gets serious there, too, because some of these people are, say, 45 years old, and they figure they've busted their tails to get where they are and they've got it made for the rest of their lives. All of a sudden their job evaporates. And they've got to be retrained, too."

Retraining for the time after the current recession is a focus of Piedmont Tech, one of 16 such institutions in the South Carolina Technical Education System that have made this state a model for the nation.

"Without question, there's a major change taking place within the whole job structure," said Lex D. Walters, president of Piedmont Tech. "As the jobs come back, they will come back in different ways, in ways more efficient for the company and in ways using the latest technology.

"We've been studying and working for two years to figure out how we can respond to the changes. The largest number of jobs in the last few years has been related to high technology.

"Much of the training that has been taking place in our state system, in microelectronics and robotics and computer control, has been aimed at putting people in these newer high-tech jobs. What we've been trying to do in the present economic slowdown and period of uncertainty is encourage people to train now to take advantage of the kinds of new jobs that will be available then."

As an indication of how seriously people are taking the new rules of work, half of the students here are adults who work day shifts (if they still have jobs) in the textile factories and study at night.

They know, as Walters says, that the nature of work is changing. Whatever news jobs are created will be different ones, requiring different skills.

"We have to get across the point that if they're not going to be retrained, they're not going to have a job at all," said Richter. "Getting them to understand why is a problem."