Tempe, Ariz. — ''The robot,'' says Dr. Ammembal L. Pai in his lightly accented East Indian English, ''has been basically stupid.'' Picking up a small plastic ball, he places it on a pad under a television camera and sits down at his computer console. A few keystrokes later, a digital image of the ball appears on the screen before him. In a moment a steam-shovel-shaped robot arm swings directly over the ball, picks it up, and drops it in a nearby basket.
The point? ''You're making the robot see,'' says the white-coated Dr. Pai.
His Image Processing Laboratory is just part of the $13 million Engineering Research Center that opened last month at Arizona State University (ASU) - one component in a five-year drive toward national prominence by the university's College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
It's all part of a twofold bid by the university: to improve the training of its 4,000 engineering students, and to become a hotbed of technological innovation.
The goal is hardly modest. ''We want to compete with the MITs and the Stanfords,'' says Assistant Dean Charles E. Backus, one of the initiators of the new program.
The sun-baked valley floor of the Greater Phoenix area may seem an unlikely place for such a goal - and for so sophisticated a building. Yet from the rooftop solar research platform to the ground-floor ''clean room'' (for vibrationless, dust-free research on semiconductors that are 50 times smaller in diameter than a human hair), the five-story building is of state-of-the-art design. Not surprisingly, the Engineering Research Center is attracting nationwide attention in high-technology circles - and, in keeping with its intention to hire 55 new faculty members, is beginning to assemble a highly respected group of engineers.
The comparison to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University is not made lightly. Sitting astride the high-tech havens of the Bay State's Route 128 and of California's Silicon Valley, those schools have provided something which economists and industrial planners see as central to regional high-tech development: an academic and intellectual atmosphere in which private industry can flourish. Scores of companies, beginning as ideas in the minds of graduate students in those schools' laboratories, have grown into businesses. Can Phoenix become another such center?
Yes, insist state officials. ''We're focusing our efforts on high-tech,'' says Judie Scalise, director of business and trade for the governor's office. She notes that Arizona already has an impressive record: high-tech manufacturing firms here employ 49 percent of the state's total manufacturing work force (according to 1982 figures), compared with a nationwide average of only 14 percent. And the growth is continuing: Arizona's high-tech employment has grown by 79 percent since 1975 - and is forecast by state economists to grow another 41 percent by 1987.
What concerns many here, however, is that so far the state's high-tech industry has largely been concentrated in manufacturing rather than in research and development. Motorola, Sperry, Garrett, Honeywell, and a half-dozen other major employers all have plants in Greater Phoenix; Hughes Aircraft and IBM are major employers in nearby Tucson. The focus, however, as economist Joanne Pastin of the Valley National Bank notes, is ''mostly production-oriented.''
University officials and businessmen here have long recognized that part of the problem in making Phoenix a genuine high-tech center has been the lack of a strong university engineering program. ASU's Image Processing Laboratory is just part of the $13 million Engineering Research Center that opened last month - one component in a five-year drive toward national prominence by the university's College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
But with the high-tech community here recently achieving what Ms. Pastin calls ''a kind of critical mass,'' there is increasing interest in moving toward high-tech innovation - and in upgrading the ASU program. So far, the state's high-tech industrial community (which needs to hire between 1,500 and 2,000 engineers each year) has been generous: Originally pledging $9.5 million to the university's five-year Plan for Engineering Excellence, private-sector firms have already given $16 million.
Will the push be successful? The results, in part, will be measured by the amount of capital that lenders are willing to risk on forming new high-tech businesses. ''We will get into R&D (research and development) when we get a good venture-capital base in this state,'' says Barbara A. Orr, an economist in the state's Office of Economic Planning and Development.
Whether there are new ideas to fund depends, most observers agree, on the success of the university program - which in turn depends on the willingness of elected officials to continue supporting it. Gov. Bruce Babbitt, a strong proponent of the ASU program, recognizes the need for strengthening not only university but secondary-school education in the science and math fields. Summing it up simply, he notes that ''we've cast our chips with high-tech.''