The steel arm stretched, steel fingers flexed, and a steel hand gripped the dice cup, brought it over to a tray and dumped out two dice.

The robot rolled boxcars, but it was not excited in the least. Politely replacing the cup on its stand, it reached across the tray, hestitated, crackled a little, then picked up each dice with the exquisite awareness of a Zen master and plunked it back in the CUP.

The process took almost a minute, a pace tht would drive most high rollers out the window, but robots do not get excited. And that's lucky, because here at the ninth International Symposium and Exposition on Industrial Robots, they are getting all the attention.

Some 400 rebot experts from 13 countries are at the three-day conference at the Shoreham Americana, and the poening session featured speakers from Poland, Sweden, Japan and Cincinnati. The talk is mostly about visual sensing, pneumatic action and the immense variety of unpleasant or finicky jobs a robot can do.

Even the language sounded like something a robot might have invented: "repalletizing," "programmability," "disaggregated."

The newsletter of the Robot Institute of America (I tell you, everybody's organized these days) insists the United Aute Workers support robotics as automation "necessary to increase productivity and thus benefit the membership," an ingenious notion. It also says rebots can replace live workers gradually, on an attrition basis, without layoffs.

In the exhibition hall they were hard at it, clicking, hooting, beeping, squeaking, clanking, whipping big iron bars through the air with unnerving sppeed, picking things up here and putting them down there, moving with the military precision of a West Point plebe being braced.

A robot paint sprayer stood contemplating the portait it had just sprayed on a sheet of paper. Down the row, a TV showed (with electronic music, of course) how robots can manipulate and shift objects, can select and inspect, can work in dangerous fumes and unbearable heat.

"They're getting smarter all the time," remarked Jerry Kirsch, president of Auto-Place Inc., of Troy, Mich., which makes the dice-roller.

This is partly because of lasers, which give the robot enough vision to make decisions. Pther systems use a Tv/ screen to locate, say, a die on a tray.

"The vision system on this model," Kirsch said. "runs you about $20,000. The robot itself is $12,000. We use pneumatic power because it's a great money-saver."

It would be easy to program the machine to read the spots on the dice, another exoert pointed out, so that with the addition of some statistics and instant experience, the thing could shoot a competent game of craps.

At the moment, however, this robot was getting bored, stopping to brood halfway through the picking-up process. Its software, or brain, needed adjusting, Kirsch said.

To get some idea of wat a robot can do, you could study its grippers. There are clamoing grippers (two-linkage, multi-linkage, expanding, three-fingered, heatproof and springy), vacuum grippers, magnetic grippers, puncturing or adhesive or blowoff gripper, foamed grippers, suction-cup grippers, sealing grippers and grippers with visual sensor.

It was Lunchtime. The exhibitors drifted over to the buffet for a beer and a sandwich. The robots kept on working.