Dozens of US WEST telephone operators, worried about being disconnected, are protesting what they call "a national robot invasion."

Not wanting their jobs to be taken over by computerized systems employed at other telephone companies nationwide, the operators put down their phones and went public Saturday to convince customers to lobby for the "voice with a smile."As part of a weeklong protest, the operators distributed material at the Salt Lake International Airport.

But officials at US WEST say their marches this week aren't necessary. There's no immediate threat that local operators will be replaced by an automated system. And while every other Baby Bell in the country is already automated, the systems only supplement live operators, said US WEST spokesperson Laura Scholl.

"The automated alternative billing service is under consideration, but there has been no final decision to implement it," Scholl said. "If we decide to implement it and that leads to some reductions, they would be done through natural attrition or by not replacing temporary workers."

And US WEST customers will always have the choice of talking with a live operator, he added.

But national trends point to further dehumanization of the telephone system.

In the 1950s more than 450,000 telephone operators manned the telephone lines, compared to less then 100,000 today, according to statistics released by the Communications Workers of America.

Now the job security of even more human operators is being threatened by inanimate, computerized systems that would respond to at least some calls should the system be implemented locally.

According to Scholl, the mechanized system clicks in when customers are making collect and third-party billing calls. Similar computerized systems are also being used by some companies for telephone repair service or new service calls.

The computer takes over the call, giving the caller several options - pressing certain buttons of the numeric key pad on touch-tone telephones to request certain services.

"Basically it gives customers options of levels of service and reduces the operative involvement in repetitive tasks," Scholl said.

But anytime callers want a live voice, they can dial "O." An operator returns, she said.

"From the union standpoint, we understand automation. But we don't like taking the humanistic side of the telephone company away from the public," said Joe Petersen, executive vice president of Communications Workers of America, Local 7704. "We have well-trained, professional, very good operators who are there to serve the public, and there are certain situations where a robot just can't do the job."

Petersen said operators nationwide report horror stories from callers who needed immediate help and instead got caught in a maze of instructions from impersonal machines.