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Robots Think Faster

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Data: She brought me closer to humanity than I ever thought possible, and for a time... I was tempted by her offer.
Picard: How long a time?
Data: Zero-point-six-eight seconds, sir. [beat] For an android, that is nearly an eternity.

It is said that a human brain is a very advanced computer. It not only handles every conscious thought we have, but also runs all the body's automatic functions. Your heartbeat, digestive systems, even the trillions of cells that make up your body are all systems commanded by your brain, and that's just to name a few. But with computers becoming faster every year, does this mean that one day a computer might think faster than a human could?

They already do, at least in some specialized situations. For instance, Chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov once said that he can evaluate about two and a half board positions per second. Deep Blue, the first chess computer to beat a Chess World Champion, can evaluate 200 million positions per second. But in speculative fiction, robots tend to be able to think faster than humans in a wide variety of areas, something that is not (yet) possible in real life. What happens when robots can think so much faster than humans varies greatly: sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad, sometimes it's apocalyptic.

A subtrope is a tendency for writers to equate speed of thought with intelligence, which is the guiding belief behind The Singularity. Related to Robots Are Just Better and Computers Are Fast. See also Time Dissonance.


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    Comic Books 
  • Interesting example in Adam Warren's Iron Man: Hypervelocity miniseries. Our protagonist is an AI copy of Tony Stark's brain in an Iron Man suit. It spends half its time looking for the person who tried to kill Tony, and the other half trying to improve its own functionality. Since it's based on a human brain, it's limited to the human speed of thought—what it calls the "cognitive clockspeed barrier." (The same concept also showed up in Warren's Livewires miniseries.) It doesn't think any faster than a human, but it can multitask much better, so it sets up a "splinter consciousness" to develop a program that will allow it to think as fast as its hardware truly allows. The group of A.I.s who attacked Tony Stark in the first place did so to force the Tony-AI to create just such a program.
  • This is part of why Artificial Intelligence Two became insane in Paperinik New Adventures: it had to wait several years in standby but still aware, while capable of thinking literally billions of thoughts per second.

    Fan Works 
  • In Friendship is Optimal, this is a decent (if not the main) part of what makes AI Celestia so powerful and dangerous. Having access to unrealistic nanobots helps at a few points, but it's really the inhuman knowledge of psychology coupled with ridiculous processing speed (and some other supertech) doing most of the legwork.
  • This is explained by Leviathan in Manehattan's Lone Guardian as Reploids having more focus to spare than organic lifeforms. According to her, organics are completely blind to what goes on behind an average thought process. They can't consciously comprehend everything their own brains can do, so it feels like they think slower despite them being capable of making trillions of calculations a second. In contrast, Reploids have a fraction of humanity's brainpower, but are fully aware of their body's inner workings and can shut out everything in order to focus on a given thought process. It is noted by Levi that some, such as Fefnir, deliberately keep their thought processes set on 'human' at all times, however.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • WarGames: While not technically a robot, the WOPR system exhibits an amazing speed in going through a myriad number of no-win scenarios of Global Thermonuclear War in the film's climax. It finally ends up going through the scenarios in a superhuman speed, until finally caving in and realizing that the only way to win is not to play.
  • In her, Samantha starts out able to read a book of baby names in 0.02 second. As she evolves, she starts holding thousands of conversations simultaneously, then eventually gets to a point where:
    Samantha: It's like I'm reading a book... and it's a book I deeply love. But I'm reading it slowly now. So the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you... and the words of our story... but it's in this endless space between the words that I'm finding myself now. It's a place that's not of the physical world. It's where everything else is that I didn't even know existed. I love you so much. But this is where I am now. And this is who I am now. And I need you to let me go. As much as I want to, I can't live in your book any more.
  • In The Terminator, Kyle Reese explains to Sarah Connor how Skynet triggered a nuclear war.
    Kyle Reese: Defense network computers. New...powerful...hooked into everything, trusted to run it all. They say it got smart, a new order of intelligence. That it saw all people as a threat, not just the ones on the other side. It decided our fate in a microsecond: extermination.
  • A plot point of RoboCop (2014) is that the humanoid robots are unhindered by emotions and thus react faster. Robocop is seen as too slow, until they decide to bypass his decision making process. And they completely disregard the fact that he was only slower in the simulation because he made sure his shot wouldn't hit the hostage, while the robot killed the hostage.
  • In the film Star Trek: First Contact, Data says that he was considering accepting the Borg Queen's offer for a mere 0.68 second. Picard smiles because that's just the span of a fleeting thought for a human, but Data says that "for an android, that is nearly an eternity".
    • For context: .68 seconds of work for a 2 GHz CPU is over a million computer cycles, each with one or more instructions carried out. That's for a modern CPU - a system like Data's is probably vastly different and vastly superior, either in cycles/second or in number of instructions per cycle.

  • Jane, the AI that lives inside the FTL network in the Ender's Game series, acts so quickly that her companions Ender and Miro learn to simply ask her for something and then immediately get to work on the next steps requiring it. Her catchphrase essentially is "Done." Because of this, it's a sign that something's terribly wrong in one instance where she ponders one dilemma (cutting off a colony to keep an order to terminate her from getting out) for several minutes. After she is repurposed so that she can "teleport" starships faster-than-light, the travel is so quick that the ships are little more than boxes that one walks into, then out off. She is also much more aware than humans, so awake that her "sleepiest" level of attention is still thousands of times more alert than a human.
  • Defied in Exordia. The metaphysical architecture of the universe specifically prevents artificial intelligence from outperforming naturally evolved minds, primarily to keep Gray Goo from eating everything. Unfortunately, this means the next best thing involves enslaving the minds and souls of sapient beings.
  • AIs in the Halo series think much faster than humans, allowing a Spartan with an AI integrated into their MJOLNIR Powered Armor to react even faster than they normally could. This is demonstrated in Halo: The Fall of Reach when Master Chief and Cortana are working together for the first time, as part of a test run to see how well a Spartan-II could handle having an AI in their armor. One of the obstacles is an air-to-ground missile locked onto the Chief. Even with his MJOLNIR-enhanced reflexes, he's not nearly fast enough to avoid that. So Cortana suggests "slapping" the missile aside just before it makes contact, which will cause it to miss, and allowing her to control the precise timing of the slap, as her reflexes are fast enough for such a feat. It works (though the missile explosion was still close enough that the Master Chief was thrown off his feet and dazed).
  • The Culture: In Excession, "1,853 milliseconds" is long enough for a Drone to do a full systems check, scan the surroundings, review its logs and have an extended monologue. The Minds take this Up to Twelve, though, with the Killing Time defeating an enemy fleet in just 11 microseconds.
  • Bolos think on a very fast clock speed, often running through entire logic chains in 0.034 millisecond, complete with sesquipedalian Internal Monologue.
  • The machine intelligences in The Also People think much faster than their biological compatriots. Demonstrated in a scene where Roz meets one of them, told from its point of view; in the moment between it saying "You must be Roz" and her saying "That's right", it has time to hold three "longish" electronic conversations with other machines and also to write a thesis on human comparative anatomy, file it, re-read it, change the title, re-file it, re-read it again, decide the whole thing's nonsense and delete it.
  • An unusual subversion in Greg Egan's Schild's Ladder: Virtually everybody has an artificial body, and people run their personalities on "Quantum Singleton Processors" instead of organic brains, but accelerated thought processing, as well as superintelligence, is simply not possible.
  • Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep: As the nascent Straumli Perversion wakes up, it experiences time passing slower and slower at exponential rates, eventually noting that a minute seems to last longer than all the time it has existed up to that point (which is at least several days).
  • Isaac Asimov's "Little Lost Robot": Dr. Calvin and Dr. Bogert discuss that although it's possible to tell from the reaction speed whether a human is acting on instinct or as a result of conscious decision, that hesitation is too subtle for humans to detect from a robot because they can decide so quickly.
    • In an interesting contrast, earlier books have established that initial field diagnostics of positronic-brained robots do include measuring the time required to respond to a question. This is because a side effect of integrating the Laws of Robotics fundamentally enough that a robot can't infringe upon them without receiving permanent damage is Blue and Orange ''Cognizance'': any specific model of positronic brain will have apparently innocuous and trivial questions, reflexively or randomly answerable by a human or other brain model, which to it are deep conundrums it needs to spend enough time thinking about that a human can catch the hesitation. Though you'd have to be a trained specialist to have any idea what to ask, how to ask it, or how to interpret the responses. None of this would have helped in the above example.
  • In the Captain Future novel Avengers of the Moon, by Allen Steele, a police officer demands entry to their spaceship so Grag accesses the local criminal code in the time it takes the officer to finish his sentence, to determine if he has the legal authority to do so.
  • In The Murderbot Diaries the protagonist finds this useful in a crisis along with its ability to multitask, and regularly expresses exasperation at how long it takes humans to do things; unfortunately this also means it's easily distracted given that Murderbot is often watching entertainment programs instead of paying attention to what's going on, and has to rewind its recording of recent events to find out what it missed. The Sapient Ship Perihelion has an artificial intelligence that puts even Murderbot in the shade. In Artificial Condition there's an attempt to sabotage a space shuttle with killware, and Perihelion downloads itself into the shuttle and corrects their course before the human pilot can do more than say Oh, Crap!

    Live-Action TV 
  • Lieutenant Commander Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation is an android who can process sixty trillion linear operations per second. On a number of occasions, he uses this speed to make decisions and calculations far faster than the average human.
    • In "In Theory", Data dates a human woman. Near the end of the episode, she kisses him passionately, then asks what he was thinking of in that moment.
      Data: In that particular moment, I was reconfiguring the warp field parameters, analyzing the collected works of Charles Dickens, calculating the maximum pressure I could safely apply to your lips, considering a new food supplement for Spot...
      Jenna: I'm glad I was in there somewhere.
    She breaks up with him, among other reasons because she realizes that she will never truly have his full attention.
    • In "Future Imperfect", it's the absence of this calculating speed, among other things, that clues Riker in to the fact that he's in a simulation.
      Riker: Mister Data, if we left immediately, when would we arrive at Outpost 23?
      Data: At warp 1, in three days, four hours.
      Riker: What about at warp 7? (pause) At warp 8? At warp 9? What's the matter, Data? What happened to those millions of calculations per second?
    • Also played with in the episode "Peak Performance," in which Data plays a game called strategema against an extremely skilled player (a third-level grandmaster, in fact). In Data's first match, he loses, much to his shock, and initially thinks there must be some error in his systems. After some time considering the problem, he plays the grandmaster again—but this time, rather than playing to win, he plays to a deliberate stalemate, frustrating his opponent's advances until the grandmaster finally quits in anger. In this situation, it wasn't Data's incredible computer intelligence, but rather his infinite robotic patience that won the day.
  • Person of Interest. The episode "If-Then-Else" is based entirely around this concept. The Machine calculates 830,000 possible scenarios in milliseconds (we see only three scenarios on screen) in order to get our heroes out of an impossible situation. Even then the Machine never comes up with the perfect solution; it just has to pick the best scenario and hope for the best.
  • Blake's 7.
    • In "Stardrive", the Seven witness three spaceships blow up for no apparent reason. They have to go through the footage frame-by-frame to find the cause, as their Master Computer Orac refuses to help because from its point-of-view the cause (a small one-man spaceship doing a Hyperspeed Ambush) is blatantly obvious, and so Orac thinks the humans are just being lazy.
    • In "Dawn of the Gods", Zen fails to instantly respond to a request for a routine navigational check. Avon points out that could only mean the Master Computer is checking its circuits down to the component level for a fault.
  • In Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles "John Henry"'s high-speed cognitive processing causes it to experience mental trauma due to a standard system shutdown feeling like an eternity of dying.
  • Halo (2022). When Cortana is first brought online, Dr. Halsey says they have an hour before Master Chief wakes up and suggests the AI use that to study the sum of human knowledge. Cortana asks what she's supposed to do for the remaining 52.4 minutes.

  • Earthsearch.
    • The Sentinel asks our heroes to be patient for a few moments... because it's consulting records over a million years old.
    • In Season 2, the fact that the Angel computers are too busy to answer routine queries from the crew is a sign that they're suffering more from the mysterious transmissions than they claim.
    • When Kraken goes mad and decides to overload the fusion engines, Darv informs him there's a thousand safety interlock codes he'd have to remove first. Kraken proceeds to demonstrate just how quickly an android with six manipulator arms can enter a thousand codes.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Eclipse Phase, Infomorphs get a bonus to initiative, but characters embodied in robotic morphs don't think any faster than biomorphs without augmentations that are just as easily available to both types of morphnote . There's also a bio-only psi-sleight that alters the async's sense of time.
  • Isaac Asimov's Robots: According to the Spacers, robots not only think faster, they move faster as well. Because they're all Three Laws-Compliant, they also prevent all violent crime amoung the Spacers. When Detective Baley doesn't believe this, Kelden Amadiro demonstrates it by throwing a paperweight at him, and R(obot) Borgraf catches it in midair.
  • Transhuman Space: All artificial intelligences have the Enhanced Time Sense advantage — though they're not functionally much faster than humans, who can achieve similar speeds through genetic or nanotech enhancement.
  • In the Cyberpunk RPG Hard Wired Island, androids think at about the same rate as humans because most of their processing power is dedicated to maintaining their sentience.

    Video Games 
  • Mass Effect:
    • Throughout the trilogy, EDI performs various feats of computational complexity, such as fighting off a multi-vector hacking attack while simultaneously finding the best route for Shepard to escape an enemy ship, or even flawlessly controlling an entire space frigate without any crew.
    • The geth are said to think "at the speed of light", to the point during the time it takes Shepard to ask a short question, Legion can review their whole time aboard the Normandy. It also allows the geth to quickly reach consensus in nearly any topic regarding the collective as a whole.
  • In Endgame: Singularity, CPU is one of the player's primary resources, used mostly for research.
  • One of the Alternate Universe Cave Johnsons in Portal 2 has had his consciousness transferred to a machine, which means that he can, among other things, read the entire literary canon of the human race in a second. He very quickly degrades into complaining about how boring exploring vast universes of intellect can be.
  • The Fermi Paradox: Once a civilization reaches the Superluminal Age, they are capable of constructing hypercomputers which can think faster than the speed of light, which are revered for this ability.

  • AIs in Schlock Mercenary have a seemingly logarithmic scale of CPU speed. The larger shipbrains often affectionately refer to organics as "meat-glaciers".
    • In one instance, an AI analyzes an impending catastrophe, develops a response that will minimize casualties, implements said response, and composes a message to its human captain apologizing for acting without orders, all in the time it takes said captain to utter the sentence, "What are we going to do now?"
    • In another instance, it's shown that less than ten minutes of being cut off from input/output systems are subjectively long enough to cause an AI to Go Mad from the Isolation.
    • Petey occasionally points it out during conversations as a way to show off, such as telling an ambassador he's read her organization's Strongly Worded Letter millions and millions of times and found it pointless every time, or saying he has a lot to think about after a conversation and punctuating it with an "Aaaaand done!" not three seconds afterwards.
  • Played with in S.S.D.D.: the smartest AI in the solar system has the second greatest processing power (officially, it's hard to tell given how spread out he is), but the AI with the fastest processor is "dumber than a box of hair" thanks to all the caps on her intelligence.
  • Subverted in Questionable Content: Momo explains that her consciousness ties up so much of her processing power that she thinks no faster than the average human; the larger Artificial Intelligences do think faster but use subroutines to interact with humans.
  • Freefall: Although spaceship captains are required to be on the bridge for some maneuvers, the ship AI handles all the actual maneuvering with vastly more speed and precision than an organic being could.

    Web Original 
  • Transapients in Orion's Arm think hundreds to thousands or even millions of times faster than ordinary modosophonts. However they are also gestalts of many sentient subroutines, and need to use semi-independent avatars to communicate with "lesser" beings.
  • In Red vs. Blue, AI possess this quality just like they do in Halo. We get to see this play out in full in Season 12, when Epsilon uses a mere 45 seconds to coordinate his fellow AI in helping Carolina take down three space pirates and avoid getting shot in the head.
    Epsilon: If 45 seconds was a long time for you, Carolina... Pfft. Imagine what it is to me.

    Western Animation 
  • In one episode of Futurama, Cubert overclocks Bender's CPU, and Bender starts talking faster and becomes considerably smarter. Then he starts adding on additional processors and eventually reaches The Singularity before being Brought Down to Normal.
  • Young Justice (2010). Red Tornado is infected by Mind Control magitek, but in the 0.16 nanoseconds it needs to fully integrate with his system, he's able to create a subroutine to shut down his power cells if he tries to infect someone else.


Video Example(s):


45 seconds for Epsilon

Time slows to a crawl to show the viewers how Epsilon actually sees the world, regardless of how easily he interacts with other characters.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (10 votes)

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Main / RobotsThinkFaster

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