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September 1982, Vol. 105, No. 9
The future of work: does it
belong to us or to the robots?
Sar A. Levitan and Clifford M. Johnson
Today, futurists are discussing the onset of a sweeping technological revolutions, one which would rival or surpass the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century in importance. This envisioned social order has been given many names"postindustrial," "technetronic," or "information" society. At the center of this flurry of interest in technological change is the microprocessor. While computerized automation has been theoretically feasible for more than a decade, large and expensive computer systems could produce cost savings only in the most massive industrial settings, and automated machinery could not be easily adapted to serve various production functions. Now, with the development of the microprocessor, these obstacles have been overcome and the potential uses of computerized machinery at the workplace have dramatically increased.
Microprocessor technology is best symbolized by the silicon chip, a miniaturized system of integrated circuits which can direct electrical current and, thereby, generate vast computational power. A silicon chip the size of one square centimeter can perform millions of multiplications per second, and has the capacity to store the texts of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and a few chapters of the Federalist Papers. Technological advances are expected to result in at least a fourfold expansion of these capabilities within a decade, so that the microprocessors of the future will be extremely powerful computers on a single silicon chip or combination of chips. The reduction in size is astoundingtoday's hand-held programmable calculators have more computational power than the first full-scale computers built during World War II, computers which could have been "hand held" only by juggling 18,000 different vacuum tubes.
This miniaturization of computer technology is particularly important because it has been accompanied by dramatic cost reductions, making microprocessors economically competitive in a wide range of industrial applications. Once designed, silicon chips can be mass produced at a very low cost, and even further price declines are anticipated as volumes rise. As a result, a calculation which cost 80 cents to perform in the early 1950s costs less than one cent today, after adjusting for inflation. The combined reductions in size and cost of microprocessor technology have triggered renewed interest in prospects for automation and in the broader possibility of a wholesale transformation of modern society driven by these new technological capabilities.
This excerpt is from an article published in the September 1982 issue of the Monthly Labor Review. The full text of the article is available in Adobe Acrobat's Portable Document Format (PDF). See How to view a PDF file for more information.
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