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Science fiction authors have been predicting for years the day when humanoid robots will roam the earth, and when mankind will be faced with a host of associated ethical issues. We still don't have C3PO, Data, The Terminator, Johnny 5 or Wall-E. But unlike the doomed flying car, scientists still believe that intelligent, man-made beings are in our future. Hans Moravec, chief scientist at Seegrid, a company that develops industrial robots capable of navigating on their own, believes that the fantastic robots of sci-fi will become reality within his lifetime.

The human retina is a patch of nervous tissue in the back of the eyeball half a millimeter thick and approximately two centimeters across. It consists mostly of light-sensing cells, but one tenth of a millimeter of its thickness is populated by image-processing circuitry that is capable of detecting edges (boundaries between light and dark) and motion for about a million tiny image regions. Each of these regions is associated with its own fiber in the optic nerve, and each performs about 10 detections of an edge or a motion each second. The results flow deeper into the brain along the associated fiber.

From long experience working on robot vision systems, I know that similar edge or motion detection, if performed by efficient software, requires the execution of at least 100 computer instructions. Therefore, to accomplish the retina’s 10 million detections per second would necessitate at least 1,000 MIPS.

The entire human brain is about 75,000 times heavier than the 0.02 gram of processing circuitry in the retina, which implies that it would take, in round numbers, 100 million MIPS (100 trillion instructions per second) to emulate the 1,500-gram human brain. Personal computers in 2008 are just about a match for the 0.1-gram brain of a guppy, but a typical PC would have to be at least 10,000 times more powerful to perform like a human brain.

Though dispiriting to artificial-intelligence experts, the huge deficit does not mean that the goal of a humanlike artificial brain is unreachable. Computer power for a given price doubled each year in the 1990s, after doubling every 18 months in the 1980s and every two years before that. Prior to 1990 this progress made possible a great decrease in the cost and size of robot-controlling computers. Cost went from many millions of dollars to a few thousand, and size went from room-filling to handheld. Power, meanwhile, held steady at about 1 MIPS. Since 1990 cost and size reductions have abated, but power has risen to about 10,000 MIPS for a home computer. At the present pace, only about 20 or 30 years will be needed to close the gap.

Of course, Mr. Moravec's logic is subject to argument. Scientists have long known that brain mass is not the best way to measure processing capability. Smaller people have smaller brains, and yet physical size is not a good predictor of intelligence. Whales have the largest brains of any animal on Earth, and yet humans like to consider themselves the most intelligent species.

Nevertheless, his conclusion that the processing power threshold for an artificial intelligence that rivals human intelligence will eventually be reached is unimpeachable. As long as humans survive and prosper, technological progress will continue, which will ultimately lead to the creation of artificial intelligence. The only question is when. His answer, like many others in the field, is soon.

That brings us to the question that concerns us here: will these robots need or want something like religion?

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