On the eve of Moscow's annual military parade commemorating the Russian Revolution, a visiting American last fall expressed respect for the apparent strength and fitness of young Soviet soldiers compared to "soft American kids." His Soviet companion shrugged and smiled: "Yes, but this is the electronic age. We worry about your boys learning to play with computers."
His somewhat playful response masks a serious Soviet concern that American computer education is creating a widening technology gap with troubling implications for the Soviet Union's future scientific, industrial and military positions.
"They're genuinely concerned about what they see going on in the U.S.," said Loren R. Graham, a specialist on Soviet science policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"They see American young people learning about computers from grade school, and they're fearful that if they don't do something, they won't be able to compete . . . with the next generation. They are scared to death about computers," Graham said.
In fact, nowhere is the computer gap more prominent than in the schools. For example, most Soviet students who take computer instruction rely exclusively on textbooks and are taught by teachers who may never have touched a working computer. A leading Soviet scientist compared that to teaching children to ride a bicycle "without the bicycle."
By comparison, there are nearly 2 million personal computers in American schools today, many of them commonly available even to kindergartners.
"If the Soviets want to continue to turn out scientists and engineers, it's very important that they bring computers into the school curriculum," Albert A. Eisenstat, vice president of Apple Computer, said in a recent interview.
Gorbachev Pushes Technology
Last spring, Soviet officials announced a massive five-year program to put 1 million personal computers into Russia's 60,000 secondary schools by 1990. That goal, almost immediately reduced to 500,000 computers, is regarded as a first step in Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's plan to revive inefficient Soviet industry with the help of widespread computerization.
Gorbachev, regarded as "a technological revolutionary" by Marshall Shulman, director of Soviet studies at Columbia University, sees technology as the key to increasing Soviet production. Shulman said Gorbachev recognizes that technology advances are vital if the Soviet Union is going to compete in a world economy "largely centered at this stage of the industrial revolution around technology."
Announcement of the Soviet computer education plan coincided with the significant easing last year of Western export restrictions on small, technologically simple computers--a convergence of events that in recent months has attracted dozens of U.S. and European computer makers to Moscow in hopes of breaking into the untapped Russian market.
Among the computer makers exploring the Soviet market are IBM and Commodore, as well as Apple, the computer company that dominates America's school market.
"Potentially, it's a big market. God knows, they've got a lot of schoolchildren," Apple's Eisenstat said.
But, despite the improved--and even favorable--trade conditions, little computer trade has developed. Soviet computer education goals remain distant and elusive, and the computer gap continues to grow.
"I think the personal computer wave really caught them unawares," MIT's Graham said. "There's always been a computer gap, but what caused it to really grow was when computers took off in the civilian economy of the West.
"In the U.S., computers spread like wildfire into banking, business and industry. Now the computer industry here is being driven by the civilian economy, and the Soviet Union has not been able to keep pace."
Why, then, are the Soviets slow to buy newly available Western computers that might narrow the gap?
Some American experts blame uncertainty caused by economic and political factors. For example, it could cost the Soviets hundreds of millions of dollars to rely substantially on foreign purchases to meet its goal of 500,000 school computers. So far, the only significant foreign order was for 10,000 Japanese computers that experts say have limited educational applications. Still, the order cost $10 million.
Furthermore, there are signs of an internal debate over how accessible computers should be to the Soviet public. While some in the Soviet scientific community advocate wide distribution, they figure to be a minority. The Soviet Union, after all, is a nation that restricts public access to Xerox machines much as the United States controls possession of machine guns.
In a country that sends citizens to jail for unauthorized photocopying, the personal computer could represent an even greater challenge to traditional advocates of strict controls on information and communications.
Susan Lotarski, director of East European and Soviet affairs for the U.S. Department of Commerce, said the Soviets are moving slowly into the computer age, at least in part, because they are trying to balance such inhibiting political factors with the obvious need to computerize.
Shulman, a former Soviet adviser in the Carter Administration, said the Soviets may also be reluctant to enter into major trade agreements with American suppliers because of concern over future U.S. trade policies, notably the uncertainty of future embargoes or other restrictions.
Freedom from such considerations undoubtedly is a factor in Soviet desires to manufacture its own computers and to further develop a domestic computer industry. Those efforts have been marked by frustration, however.
Poor quality control, conflicting bureaucratic jurisdictions and the missing element of consumer demand in a centrally controlled economy have made mass production of computers a dream instead of a reality.
Russia's own personal computer--the crude, Apple-like Agat--has made little headway even in the Soviet market. It is expensive, costing the equivalent of about two years' salary in the Soviet Union. It is slow, compared to Western technology. And only a few are available at any price. Production is a major problem.
"The fact is, they just aren't capable of producing computers with precision," an American computer maker who asked not to be identified said. "The Agat is a case in point. They could make one work, but they couldn't make 50 that worked."
"The one big sale the Soviets would be delighted to make would be for IBM or Apple to sell them a turnkey factory--the production material they need to manufacture computers," MIT's Graham said. "They'd buy that enthusiastically."
Most Sales Restricted
Of course, such a sale would be blocked by U.S. authorities who continue to restrict high-technology exports to all Eastern Bloc nations. Because the Pentagon is concerned that even the simplest home computers could have military applications to the Soviets, most high-tech exports must be reviewed by the Department of Defense.
Until last year, sales of the Apple II and IBM-PC families of home computers were restricted to friendly nations. However, U.S. manufacturers successfully argued that because similar technology was so widely available on world markets, U.S. export controls were ineffective and harmful to the competitive interests of American computer makers. The restrictions were relaxed.
However, the doors of technology trade were not opened wide. Apple's Eisenstat acknowledges that any large sale of computers--even outdated models--faces export review.
The Soviet computer lag does not mean that it is without good computers. American experts believe that in space and military applications, the computer gap is not as great.
But, "I expect that gap to widen," Graham said. "The Soviets are getting better in the computer field all the time, but not as fast as we are."
Even if the Soviet Union could more easily purchase Western technology or improve its own manufacturing processes, significant obstacles to computer proliferation would remain. For example, short-term Soviet production quotas tend to discourage innovation aimed at long-term efficiencies.
"Management is rewarded for meeting production norms, and that works against innovation," Columbia's Shulman noted. "When you innovate--install a computer system--you may go through a period when you wrestle with the bugs in the system. If your output falls and you fall short of your goals in the Soviet Union, you lose your bonuses. So the prevailing ethos is to play it safe."
For example, technicians at a Soviet galvanizing plant that had been equipped with an automated production line discovered, after the computer was installed, that no software was available to run the system. Rather than solve the software problem, they disconnected the computer so that the production line could be run in the old-fashioned way--manually.
Such examples, according to Ross Alan Stapleton, a Soviet researcher at the University of Arizona, demonstrate why he and other Soviet experts are pessimistic about Soviet industry's computerization prospects.
"And remember, the automobile's still very much a luxury there," Stapleton said, noting also that the ancient abacus is still widely used by store clerks to "ring up" sales.
MIT's Graham also questions whether the Soviet Union can be marched into the computer age by government edict.
"What we're seeing is an extremely interesting contest; the Soviets are trying to duplicate the success of the West by ordering computer production and training," he said. "My guess is it won't work.
"In the West, the computer industry bubbled up from below, from consumer demand. The Soviets are trying to order the demand from above. In five or 10 years, they'll probably realize they are following an unsuccessful path," Graham added. "By then, they'll be even further behind."