The Computer Moves In

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rut dug by the Industrial Revolution? Put another way, why do so many people make friends at the office rather than among their neighbors? Prophets of the electronic cottage predict that it will once again enable people to find community where they once did: in their communities. Continental Illinois Bank, for one, has opened a suburban "satellite work station" that gets employees out of the house but not all the way downtown. Ford, Atlantic Richfield and Merrill Lynch have found that teleconferencing can reach far more people for far less money than traditional sales conferences.

Whatever the obstacles, telecommuting seems particularly rich with promise for millions of women who feel tied to the home because of young children. Sarah Sue Hardinger has a son, 3, and a daughter three months old; the computer in her cream-colored stucco house in South Minneapolis is surrounded by children's books, laundry, ajar of Dippity Do. An experienced programmer at Control Data before she decided to have children, she now settles in at the computer right after breakfast, sometimes holding the baby in a sling. She starts by reading her computer mail, then sets to work converting a PLATO grammar program to a disc that will be compatible with Texas Instruments machines. "Midmorning I have to start paying attention to the three-year-old, because he gets antsy," says Hardinger. "Then at 11:30 comes Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, so that's when I usually get a whole lot done." When her husband, a building contractor, comes home and takes over the children, she returns to the computer. "I use part of my house time for work, part of my work time for the house," she says. "The baby has demand feeding; I have demand working."

To the nation's 10 million physically handicapped, telecommuting encourages new hopes of earning a livelihood. A Chicago-area organization called Lift has taught computer programming to 50 people with such devastating afflictions as polio, cerebral palsy and spinal damage. Lift President Charles Schmidt cites a 46-year-old man paralyzed by polio: "He never held a job in his life until he entered our program three years ago, and now he's a programmer for Walgreens."

Just as the vast powers of the personal computer can be vastly multiplied by plugging it into an information network, they can be extended in all directions by attaching the mechanical brain to sensors, mechanical arms and other robotic devices. Robots are already at work in a large variety of dull, dirty or dangerous jobs: painting automobiles on assembly lines and transporting containers of plutonium without being harmed by radiation. Because a computerized robot is so easy to reprogram, some experts foresee drastic changes in the way manufacturing work is done: toward customization, away from assembly-line standards. When the citizen of tomorrow wants a new suit, one futurist scenario suggests, his personal computer will take his measurements and pass them on to a robot that will cut his choice of cloth with a laser beam and provide him with a perfectly tailored garment. In the home too, computer enthusiasts delight in imagining machines performing the domestic chores. A little of that fantasy is already reality. New York City Real Estate Executive David Rose, for example, uses his Apple in business deals, to catalogue his 4,000

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