The Demonstration

You're a rich, successful CEO/capitalist working in the electronics business. Your R&D division is exceptional and routinely fabs state of the art processors at bleeding edge processes. (If it helps, you're in an equivalent position to the CEO of Foxconn, Samsung or Intel).

A person walks into your office one day bringing a small device with them. It fits in their pocket and has a smooth, rounded exterior. They ask to demonstrate the device to you and you consent. They proceed and magic happens. The device is capable of performing operations that are hinted at by the products your company makes now or can be done with extremely cumbersome equipment. From your own knowledge of the electronics industry, you know the global state of the art and this device performs far far beyond. Your top engineers are also permitted to use the device to verify that there is no trickery afoot. They too are blown away. The stranger even lets you keep the device for up to 168 hours with the warning that if shenanigans happen, the device will make itself, well, unavailable to you. (The device will remain fully function after the review period is over. The threat of unavailablity ends after payment is made.)

The stranger says that they come from 30 years in the future. They can't describe how the device is made or any of the relevant manufacturing techniques, materials or processes. They only know how to operate the device and its general capabilities. But, they will sell you up to 10 devices for 1% of your net profits this year. Transfer of funds will be worked out later after the deal is struck.

Do you buy this tech knowing full well that you can't duplicate it? If purchased, how do you use these devices going forward?

Out of Scope

  • Verifying that the stranger is actually from the future. You, oh CEO, just know it to be true.
  • Verifying that the device actually does what the demonstration shows it will do. The stranger is trustworthy and the device performs as advertised.
  • How to actually transfer the funds in a way that the stranger can use it.
  • Shenanigans by you to acquire the devices without paying the stranger for them. You're honest.
  • Considerations of time travel and altering the future.
  • Discussion of what the device actually does. The thrust of this question is aimed at the assessment of risk/opportunity for purchasing tech you know you can use but can't yet duplicate.
  • The threat of government interference is zero. You have sufficient leverage that no one is going to come take away you or the devices.
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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – James Jun 8 '18 at 15:40
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    $\begingroup$ Is this offer just to the CEO, or is this time traveller going to offer to the competition next ? $\endgroup$ – Criggie Jun 9 '18 at 20:21

28 Answers 28


Yes, 100% Yes

Just because the stranger doesn't know how to build it or how it was manufactured doesn't mean that you can't reverse engineer it. With 10 devices, you even have some spares so you can perform destructive testing on all 10 of them if it gets you enough data to make a replica.

This is even more important since it performs the actions of your devices (I'm not sure if it's what big devices do in a small space, or if it's like your planned features in a smaller space or just something still in R&D). This means that even without being able to replicate it 100% you will be able to gain insights into the development path of your current technologies.

Once you have some idea of how it works, the technologies it employs you can research towards it and fund development in that part because you know it works now. You can also create a ton a patents outlining the general principles upon which it works so in the future you can have a partial monopoly on technology and sue the crap out of anyone before they figure out another way around it.

The best thing about future tech is it lets you know what you can do and in which direction to invest further funding. With advancements in technology becoming so much faster, 30 years isn't a long time. Just for comparison, the Internet is 30 years old. Imagine being able to know about what the internet could do before it even came out.

As for the requirements, you can get around them pretty easily. You need to pay 1% net profits? NET PROFITS!!! I guess I'll just spend everything on R&D and have no net profits. Increase the pay of every single employee if you wanted to, give yourself a huge ass bonus, sure your stockholders might be upset, but that depends on your company and how well you sell this new research with people.

Discussion of what the device actually does? Just observe and write down exactly what you see it do. There is no discussion, just a list of observations. Your engineers and researchers don't need to discuss the device itself either. They can talk about this new magical alloy that was given to them, the complicated quantum circuitry, the crystallized hologram projector that was given to them to figure out how it works.

Affect the future? Time travel will always affect the future... so I don't get the point of that either... unless that was a time travel device

The worst thing that happens is you lose 1% of net profits, which could be effectively 0 if you wanted it to be. Just do it.

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    $\begingroup$ Excellent answer. Additionally, any "Made in Country X", "Compliant with standard ABC" type information available on the device or in its help files can give some insight into what countries / governments are still around, producing and regulating in 30 years - useful to know for lots of strategic corporate planning. $\endgroup$ – KerrAvon2055 Jun 7 '18 at 7:34
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for "research towards it" and "general principles patents" - knowing what will become both possible and marketable (assuming that if he has 10 devices but doesn't know how they work, they're something he picked up in a future store, not something he developed but couldn't market) is incredibly valuable to a company big enough to have a notable R&D division. $\endgroup$ – Syndic Jun 7 '18 at 9:50
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    $\begingroup$ "30 years isn't a long time" – Do you mean "is"? $\endgroup$ – timuzhti Jun 7 '18 at 10:52
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    $\begingroup$ Heck, if the only thing you did was look at the back of the device to see who made it, and then make sure to invest in them early-stage, you'd probably make your money back in droves if the company doesn't already exist. Imagine being able to get in on Google's seed round. In other words, there's a good chance you'd be able to earn back that 1% without even caring about the underlying tech. $\endgroup$ – yshavit Jun 7 '18 at 15:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Ray: Those funds aren't lost, they're invested, with an expectation of paying out after the contract with the time traveler expires. $\endgroup$ – Ben Voigt Jun 7 '18 at 17:59

Oh most certainly indeed yes!

So yes, the object can be examined, it can be reverse engineered. Sure maybe it needs infrastructure or materials that haven't been created or invented, but having the device would let you know where to look, making development much easier thing. No longer would you be looking at an infinite combination of things that haven't been thought of, but a defined solution that you are looking for an equation for. Even just knowing it will exist has already given you an advantage.

Also, showing it to investors would get you better investment terms and cheaper funding.

And finally, they want their compensation in future profits of your company. Let me say that again to make sure it sinks in.
If I was going to make a guess about how successful my actions would be, I would want to be on that train. Sure it isn't a guarantee - they might have ulterior motives, but if I was a betting man, I'd take that bet every. single. time.

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    $\begingroup$ Hinting that you will have a good year is nice, but a one time fee rather than a continuing share is less encouraging. $\endgroup$ – user25818 Jun 7 '18 at 21:01

Your lawyers said "No".

They can't describe how the device is made or any of the relevant manufacturing techniques, materials or processes.

This presents an immediate problem : you cannot patent the device and you don't know how to make it or even if making it is possible. People will ask questions about this. You may even be infringing patents used to make it and find yourself sued and in court. At which point an answer of "a guy from the future sold them to me" will land you in either the funny farm or jail for contempt of court.

And if someone steps forward who says "this is all based on my idea" and sues you, the last thing you want is to be dragged into court to contest that. So you are vulnerable to every con artist and greedy employee you have.

In short this thing is trouble.

Your top engineers are also permitted to use the device to verify that there is no trickery afoot. They too are blown away.

Quite possibly you'll have to blow them away to keep this secret. :-)

Can engineers keep secrets ? Sure, but it's easier if they have accidents of a tragic nature.

Showing this to engineers who then either never hear about it again (which they'll wonder about) or which they can't find out how it works (red flag to a bull territory), is extremely high risk.

And when the engineers are subpoenaed when the lawsuits happen, you're in deep do-do.

And remember that thing about someone claiming to have come up with the idea and suing you ? It could be a disgruntled or greedy engineer.

Successful CEOs don't like things that leave them vulnerable and they're control freaks. They like to know no surprises are lurking and they listen to their lawyers and if they can't even patent it, they're not going to touch it.

The Military...

Now these are the guys who might be willing to pay for something special no questions asked. Heck, they practically do it now (see "The Pentagon Wars" for that).

So you might be able to act as a go-between.

Use don't sell...

You don't try and sell these things, you use them in your business. Risky (for reasons mentioned above), but exposes you to less risk from lawyers.

they will sell you up to 10 devices for 1% of your net profits this year.

This is a problem because unless you can make a huge price for each of these ten items, that is going to be a relatively small reward for all the risks.

And if they're worth a huge price that's actually worse.

In that case lots of nosy people (like your competitors and government intelligence agencies) will start trying to find out what's going on. Again answers involving people from the future dropping by your office won't be good choices.

So these things are more dangerous to have than to forget.

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    $\begingroup$ But in 30 years, if it turns out you didn't create it, you can use the older device to claim prior art and invalidate someone else's patent. So there is some patent utility. $\endgroup$ – SRM Jun 7 '18 at 5:17
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    $\begingroup$ @SRM To show prior art you need to show you not only had the device previously (i.e. you need a legally acceptable demonstration you had it), you also need to show you (to the same standard) that you knew how to make it before someone else. I don't see how to show prior art. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Jun 7 '18 at 5:39
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    $\begingroup$ @StephenG You have 30 years to figure that out. Also, a lot of real world patents are vague to the point of absurdity, because either the comnpany holding them didn't actually invent anything, but paid a lawyer to make sure to protect their niche anyway (e.g. "we sell sandwiches without a crust") or because they shotgun-patented anything they could think of before it could become relevant. If in doubt, don't patent the technology (which may be beyond you), patent the designs, UI scheme, the number of buttons or inpout gestures etc. If you throw enough money at it, some will stick. $\endgroup$ – Ruther Rendommeleigh Jun 7 '18 at 9:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Anthony The biggest problem would be any materials that require something we haven't found yet The biggest problem is more likely knowing how to manufacture a whole slew of components we don't know even the design of. Even manufacturing process could involve dozens of currently unknown techniques. And there's a huge gap (decades) between "I know how this works, Boss" and "I have a practical manufacturing process we can make money from". The firmware alone would be a nightmare to figure out, reverse engineer and try and work out communications protocols used. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Jun 7 '18 at 17:57
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    $\begingroup$ @TracyCramer: If the prior art is offered publicly at least 12 months before the filing, it matters. $\endgroup$ – Ben Voigt Jun 7 '18 at 18:02

I did a quick mental check on the gadgets I have nowadays, and how could they be used 30 years ago.

Let's see those fitting into your description, and how would they work in 1988:

It fits in their pocket and has a smooth, rounded exterior.

  • MP3 player: 30 years ago I would have shortly listened only to the already loaded music. I would have missed the MP3 format, the MP3 converter and, last but not least, the USB port to charge its battery.
  • Smartphone: 30 years ago I would have no mobile network supporting it, nor I could have had Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. It would have been a fancy camera, a fancy agenda and the like. But just attempting exchanging data would have been impossible, due to the lack of ports, protocols AND large enough memories. A single photo of my mobile would not fit on a floppy, and would probably overflow the memory of a computer trying to visualize it.
  • smart watch: assuming I manage to keep it charged, I can use it to monitor my health, as long as I renounce using GPS tracking.

Just from this short list I tend to say that investing 1% of the company net profits in them is a rather poor investment. Contemporary devices work way better with the available infrastructure. I cannot even figure out some of the features of those devices if they have no infrastructure to interact with!

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    $\begingroup$ You are assuming that they would use it as a consumer. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Jun 7 '18 at 11:13
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    $\begingroup$ The USB charging port is simply a +5V supply. Assuming the future person knows that, they're fine. The useful technology for 30 years ago though is not the MP3 functionality, it's the ARM microcontroller which runs it. Ditto your phone and smart watch. The fractal antennas will also be of interest. $\endgroup$ – Graham Jun 7 '18 at 14:47
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    $\begingroup$ The battery alone would be enough make the investment in your examples. I agree that the device may be limited, but the hardware would still be extremely advanced. As I mentioned in another comment, the gorilla glass screen would be a huge advancement. As would the OLED display. $\endgroup$ – Anthony Jun 7 '18 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ Also, since everyone seems to be committed to this idea that the traveler has brought back 10 working devices, this means the Bluetooth and wifi are also valuable, since they could bind to each other, thus providing a demonstration of the protocol as well as an opportunity to reverse engineer it. $\endgroup$ – Anthony Jun 7 '18 at 16:02
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    $\begingroup$ the songs loaded on it would potentially be worth a fortune $\endgroup$ – Ewan Jun 7 '18 at 16:38

Yes, because buying gives you options

...not buying removes options and possibly gives them to your competitors. The stranger doesn't say

There's a range of outcomes here. At the best, your company gets a huge kickstart to technology that will be exceptionally valuable, easily adding tens of billions to your company's income or even better opening up entire new industries. New manufacturing techniques, new materials, new information architectures... Any and all of these will be huge competitive advantages.

At the worst, the devices turn into inert bricks in a year and you can't do anything with the operations of the device itself. But, you still can study how it was made. Advanced manufacturing techniques are still bonkers valuable. For example, if the device gives you hints at how you can create the arbitrary shapes of 3d stereolithography but do it in seconds instead of hours... That's an amazing improvement.

You can't patent the device itself anyway. Your company will patent all the processes that come from studying the device. There's 30 years of improvements contained in that device, you should be able to find at least a few things to patent.

You pay a small one time cost that provides the opportunity for essentially unlimited upside. These are the kinds of chances that CEOs the world over dream about. The stranger has essentially said "Give me a billion now and I'll give you a 100 trillion over the next 30 years." You say Yes!

Buy it already!


I would judge this a poor risk. 1% of annual profits are pretty much a drop in the bucket, but possessing this device is meaningless. A government employee will walk through the door flanked by several guys with bulges in their jackets that are suspiciously sub-machine-gun-like, take it away from you, and force you and anyone who knows about these devices to sign aggressively binding non-disclosure agreements. These agreements include forfeiture of any and all (very lucrative) government contracts you might presently have as well as barring you from any in the future, should you make so much as a whisper in your sleep about the device's existence. This will also happen should you fail to pay the elusive future man and void the contract, leading to the device's destruction.

Not only would your company fail to benefit from the purchase, but you would now have the very serious risk of losing out on highly lucrative government contracts. Your first reaction should be to alert the government to gain brownie points and goodwill, which you can use as leverage to obtain more contracts in the future.

Thats just my opinion though. I think you should word the question to be less geared towards what I would personally do as a CEO and more towards what a theoretical CEO stands to lose or gain from such a transaction.

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    $\begingroup$ Assuming that the device isn't immediately military-related, is it realistic to expect the government to seize it? And why would the company get banned from government contracts? I mean, don't get me wrong - I can definitely understand why anyone, including the government/military, would want future tech. What I'm unsure about (and perhaps this is being naive?) is if a government like the US's would seize something awesome simply for it being awesome, and then punish those that it stole the awesome tech from. $\endgroup$ – Nat Jun 7 '18 at 12:43
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know about the government coming in. Developing new tech like this is crazy expensive. Possessing these devices and all the R&D capabilities your company already has put you in a really strong negotiating position to say "No, you can't have them because we can exploit them better than you can". As CEO of a huge tech company, it's simplicity itself to escalate this up the chain till its a negotiation with politicians instead of the military or law enforcement. $\endgroup$ – Green Jun 7 '18 at 13:42
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    $\begingroup$ Governments don't typically engineer or manufacture technology directly themselves. Even top secret government funded research is usually going to be performed by some non-government entity under contract. It is possible they may seize the devices, if they do, they are going to have to turn around and hand it over to some other lab (that they may have more control over) to research and eventually contract out any manufacturing. $\endgroup$ – Mr.Mindor Jun 7 '18 at 19:35
  • $\begingroup$ I think that the fact that DARPA exists contradicts this opinion. Its pretty much preciseley suited to such an important project while maintaining secrecy. $\endgroup$ – TCAT117 Jun 7 '18 at 21:05
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    $\begingroup$ Assuming that the government even knew about Future Guy in the first place, then yes, they will come... and hand your company a big fat R&D contract in order to reverse engineer it for military purposes. Remember, in this scenario you're not some schmo tinkering in a garage, you're the CEO of an industry leading multibillion dollar tech company. You're the guy that the government would hand the future-tech device to in order to develop it, if you didn't already have it. $\endgroup$ – Gene Jun 7 '18 at 23:08

Do you buy this tech knowing full well that you can't duplicate it?

Definitely. At that price, there's little financial risk, and the potential is enormous. To be honest, the awesome factor alone would probably convince me. But for someone with my resources, I'd be pretty confident I could make it profitable, too.

If purchased, how do you use these devices going forward?

Depending on what the device does and what my current business model is, I see two plausible, low risk applications:

1. The long game

If it's tech from 30 years in the future, you might not be able to replicate it right away, but you should master it eventually. The gap between what you have and what you can make will shrink over time. It'll give you enough of a head start to outpace your competition, at least.

Keep it in R&D and make sure you learn everything you can from it. Try replicating small parts of it and work your way up. You might not make much headway on the processor, but what about the power supply, sensors, network components, display, even the casing?

Also figure out the software. Is the device programmable? Does it have a debug console? Can you build an adapter to connect to it somehow? "Inventing" something like OOP 25 years ahead of the curve would be huge, and doesn't require ridiculous processing power. Advanced algorithms, e.g. for optical recognition of things, if they could be reverse-engineered, can be used on smaller or more constrained data sets and problems.

Even in the worst case scenario that you, ultimately, learn nothing of commercial use, you can be assured that the best and brightest in your field would give a lot to be able to work on this project for you. You'd be in an ideal position to build the team of your dreams and make sure you lead the insdustry for decades to come.

2. Integrate it

With digital technology maturing, there is a trend towards backwards compatiblity. Not enough to "plug&play" across a 30 year gap, but there's a good chance that when I retire, we'll still be using some variants of USB, HTTP etc. Ideally, your engineers could use that knowledge to build a (slower and more bulky, but more or less compatible) cable or wireless connector.

Even if that fails, the device probably has a human-usable interface. While not ideal, modern computers can use those. Put it in a slightly larger box with a robot hand and a camera, spend a year or two customizing your software for the annoying 5% of difficult-to-process edge cases, and you've got a product.

Last step: find the most interesting edge cases where current day tech just doesn't cut it. Don't think mass market, look for prestige projects and unique technical challenges like fighter jets, space missions, research facilities, espionage/electronic warfare etc. Bringing the equivalent of a building sized supercomputer into space in a few-kilograms, power-efficient package will be worth a lot to the right people.

And don't forget about your own R&D department. Your engineers are bound to have some time-consuming simulations that a cluster of, say, 4 of these devices could speed up tremendously.

Mitigating the risks

Do make sure, if you sell any devices or grant access to them in some way, to only provide it in integrated form, with lots of shielding and a rugged case, provide enough bogus documentation to "answer" any questions on how it works, and make the price tag ridiculous enough to explain the limited supply.

Remember that you can afford to spend some time letting your engineers examine the thing and have a small team make up plausible excuses. If possible, add an anti-tampering mechanism that destroys the device if messed with.

On the outside, treat it like the technological marvel it is, and most business partners won't prod too much about why you're only manufacturing 10 bleeding edge fighter jets, space station supercomputers or particle research labs.

Actually, make that 9. I'd keep one for myself, or at least the company, just in case.

Sure, you do need to be careful about your business partners. You might have to get rid of some witnesses. Anything that valuable comes with a risk. But you have the resources to make it work. Just don't rush it.


Don't Buy!!!!

Just because it's from the future doesn't mean it will be a successful product.

The history of technology is full of many also-ran technologies.

Beta-max was in many ways superior to VHS, hell SONY has had an endless string of unique protocols and device lines that had great functions and were designed well, but failed because of their uniquenes and not playing well with others. Thus limiting the ecosystem from large scale adoption. Many technologies only function with sufficient infrastructure present. Zip disks were great holding much more than floppy disks, unless you couldn't find a reader in which case they were useless. Similarly an iphone is going to pretty limited without a network, and a lot of the apps lacking servers won't work.

You may think you are buying the next iPod, but what if you were being sold a Zune, or even worse maybe a laserdisc! The tech may be great, but it might be a dead end or may be quickly bipassed by competitors alternate technologies.

  • $\begingroup$ Also, this could be like a Terminator-like situation, where the future alters the past that erases the future; maybe that product ends up being non-viable because it was too far ahead of its time. As you say, it's not necessarily about the product, just the timing of the product. $\endgroup$ – phyrfox Jun 7 '18 at 19:45
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    $\begingroup$ Betamax and VHS are the SAME technology implemented with slightly different specs. iPods and Zunes are largely the same story. You are getting in ahead of your competitors which gives you a chance to SET the standards. $\endgroup$ – BobTheAverage Jun 7 '18 at 20:37
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    $\begingroup$ Being first to market does not guarantee you get to set the standard. SONY repeatedly tried to set the standard; Betamax, Digital Audio Tape, Minidisc, ATRAC, Memory Stick, it is a long list of failures. $\endgroup$ – Josh King Jun 7 '18 at 20:47
  • $\begingroup$ So what if it might not be a successful product? It's all about being able to reverse engineer the tech. And the tech in a Zune and iPod are pretty much identical. $\endgroup$ – Gene Jun 7 '18 at 23:16
  • $\begingroup$ @phyrfox That's out of scope, per the question. (point #5). $\endgroup$ – Charles Jun 8 '18 at 12:32


but you need to keep it on the down low, for about, lets say 30 years, and during those years explore what the tech can can too an learn everything their is to know about it. So when the time when it is invented comes you either...

A) get some business partners and lawyers then claim the device then mass produce it and watch the cash role in

B) look through the device to find any clues on who made it and find them and make some money off the stock market

C) just use it to enhance your own dalily life and live like your 30 years in the future

  • $\begingroup$ I don't think A is going to work. The very first thing the people who actually developed the thing are going to do is show their work to prove they, at worst, independantly developed it. Then you have to show your work. Early prototypes, design documents, a myriad of things that you won't be able to produce. You'd be lucky not to get arrested for industrial espionage. Being able to claim the device and all the development documents is not credible. $\endgroup$ – Eric Nolan Jun 11 '18 at 10:51

Definitely buy it.

You can count on it that this person will also try to sell your competitors this technology, and you cannot count on them not being able to reverse-engineer it. Better to try your own engineers too.

30 years into the future does not seem that long ago. An engineer 30-60 years back from our past would be probably able to figure out what our tech does, and get ideas on how to replicate it, even if it took them a long time.


Scenario 1. Thank the gentlemen who presented the device and decline the offer. The reasoning behind this decision is that by simply seeing the device you have already gained everything there is. You now know something about the future of your industry and may adjust your plans. Another reason for turning them down is the fact that this device does not exist. Any, even smallest information flow back in time will change the future and keeping this artefact would alter the future even more. Thus, the device comes from future that is no longer valid.

Scenario 2. Accept the offer and get the 10 devices. Lets assume these devices are future smartphones (thats what we all are thinking, I suppose, even though it could be something else completeley). So if these are smartphones, they are part of larger infrastructure or network and services that need to be developed soon. Even not being able to reverse engineer the electronics, you could try to communicate with them and find out what kind of possibilities these gadgets will open in terms of services that can be offered in next few decades. This knowledge will give significant advantage to your company. You may discover that there is need to start building a network for services that seem completeley pointless at the moment but in 20 years everyone will discover that you are ahead of everyone else by decades. Meanwhile your competition has dismissed you as lunatic.

  • $\begingroup$ Does it matter if the future the device comes from is no longer valid, as long as you still have the devices? The tech it contains is still valid tech, even if the exact device will never get made in your future. $\endgroup$ – Gene Jun 7 '18 at 23:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Gene Sure, may be the fact that the protagonist reverse engineers the device is actually the reason why it will be made in future. That raises a question where did the original come from. However, this is going to 'out of scope' territory for this question $\endgroup$ – Congenital Optimist Jun 8 '18 at 12:59
  • $\begingroup$ If it really is a toaster that just happens to have better chips in it because nobody makes chips as bad as the best from 30 years ago anymore you might get some very funny ideas about what's coming. $\endgroup$ – user25818 Jun 8 '18 at 18:14


At minimum, you can see/guess what processes are used. With that you can guide your research and ignore dead-ends that might look promising now.

Since each sphere does things that baffle you, it must be outperforming the serverfarms you have for your research. Your R&D department is always going to have a few formula's and calculations lying around that they cant solve yet until certain processing power and capabilities are met, these spheres allow you to get a multi-year jumpstart on your competitors both in speed as well as specific solved problems.

Taking a few apart to look what they might be made off can guide your research efforts in the direction you need. Perhaps you find a different quantum bit than current research uses? Well there must be an advantage to those so start researching those now and have this type of technology what, 10 years earlier? Also keep in mind that after 10 years they might have the capacity to understand and reverse Engineer the spheres...

Since the visitor doesnt seem to know a lot about these spheres, they must be consumer products and the visitor someone abusing a law or something to get rich. It also means that your IT department can rummage around the files and find things like the Motherboard setup, its layout, information about how powerful the processors are, storage capacity, type of battery it uses etc.

If you are an asshole these things give you unprecedented power to hack. Research from competitors, Governmental data, stocks&shares, nothing would be safe, and you can make even more money on the markets after all the info you liberated. Just buying out competitors and focussing their departments on more research might accelerate everything. By the time the visitor comes around he might have access to the equivalent of 50years future tech.


You may not have a choice but to say yes

Maybe the person from the future offering the device has it only because of you developed/bought it with your company. And because the person is making this offer you may have already said yes and no matter what you do it will lead to the outcome that sometime in the future you will have to send somebody back to the past to offer yourself the device.
This time paradox seems to have no beginning but time travel does strange things like that after all.

  • $\begingroup$ But there has to be a "first" round where nothing happened right? Even if what you say is true, not accepting it would disprove the timeloop. And at the time of offering you dont know what kind of timetravel applies. Theres apparently several dozen possibilities. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Jun 7 '18 at 12:11
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    $\begingroup$ emphasis on may: because it's so weird we have no way of knowing (except for maybe asking the time traveler himself) what's going on. The other answers provide good decision processes but I just wanted to point out this possibility. $\endgroup$ – douira Jun 7 '18 at 12:27
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    $\begingroup$ Good point. Didnt read it that way. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Jun 7 '18 at 13:06
  • $\begingroup$ The question said to disregard "Considerations of time travel and altering the future". This appears falls within that category. $\endgroup$ – Ray Jun 7 '18 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Ray : this answer doesn't suggest the impact of saying yes or no has on the future, only that your choice may have already been made for you. I agree it is touching on the constraint, but it is acting more as a short circuit to the premise of the question rather than using affect on future as a consideration for the decision. $\endgroup$ – Anthony Jun 7 '18 at 18:33


Lets turn this around and look at present day tech being offered to a CEO of a tech company, probably involved in the semiconductor industry (because most of the big tech companies of the day were), in 1988. And let's say that the device offered is a 2018 model smartphone.

I don't have a hope of replicating it -- the infrastructure and basic knowledge that I'd need to bridge the 30 year gap just doesn't exist -- but it can still give me some useful benefits:

  • I'll take a look at the chips on the device and will immediately know that Moore's law is going to continue applying essentially unchanged for the next 30 years. This would be a huge bonus for a semiconductor company, as an awful lot of time and resources were invested into finding alternative directions to continue improving on the basis that Moore's law would stop applying at various assumed barriers (but which were eventually overcome relatively easily). Simply knowing that it's possible to make chips this small and that it doesn't involve using exotic materials will focus the research into the right areas.

  • I will see that the RISC vs CISC processor debate was eventually resolved in favour of RISC. This may lead to me making more optimal decisions on projects to pursue.

  • I will learn that Flash memory has become the dominant non-volatile storage medium. I can therefore avoiding investing in its primary competitor, bubble memory.

  • I will learn about mobile phones, operating system and UI design improvements, aerial technology, battery technology, and digital cameras. None of these are directly relevant to my current business, but are likely to become so in the near future.

  • I will have 10 devices (9 by the time one has been dismantled and the main ICs removed from their packaging to get micrographs of their internals), each of which has ~100 times the computing capacity of the fastest supercomputer in the world. Reverse engineering of the software on the phones should enable me to write software to take advantage of this. Knowing the current state of the art in both integrated circuit design and PCB design, I will understand that many of the processes involved can be automated, but that current generation computers are nowhere near fast enough to do so for large circuits. But the processors in these phones can do it. This will give me a massive boost over my competition.

So, based on the knowledge that if this had happened 30 years ago it would be definitely beneficial, and not knowing of any reason why the next 30 years would be less useful to know about than the last 30, I'd definitely do it.

  • $\begingroup$ I greatly appreciate your approach here. Thank you. $\endgroup$ – Green Jun 10 '18 at 22:23

I would say "I don't know". Simply, I don't know if 30 years of advancement is enough of a leap. I don't think the engineers and scientists can really get enough insight without tearing it apart to tell is whether it's worth 1% (1% of Intel is different than 1% of Texas Instruments).

What's the value of such a device? Is it truly revolutionary, or a singing frog?

Using the common suggestion of sending an iPhone back to, well, 1988 now. What would we learn?

Most of the tech in an iPhone is not necessarily revolutionary, it's refinement. LiIon battery tech research started in the 70s, first one to market in 1991. How much would seeing a 30 year old battery have advanced that kind of development?

Much of what we know about microprocessor development goes way back. Does seeing a much denser microprocessor actually help in developing such a device? Or is it more "yea, we know we can get there, we just can't jump to 7nm in one leap". Much of technology is based not on a single thing, but an entire ecosystem of development. From materials, to tooling, to skill set in the workforce.

Lots of folks know what "can be done", even if we can't quite get there yet. And the reasons we can't "get there yet" are not simply lack of knowledge, but the entire eco-system of infrastructure, market, and capital.

Consider the current boom of AI. It's not as if the fundamental techniques are necessarily new, but the revolution of big data, vast data spaces, CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP computing power all have had impact on this field.

The "revolution" of the iPhone was the magic trick it pulled off with its touch UI, graphics, and battery life. And then, later, simply the "concept" of the App Store, which isn't really technology at all.

The real question is what would Google have paid for a clone of an iPhone in the year 2000. Or, what if TI saw the iPhone, would anything have happened at all? Would they have been able to keep it secret? Would it have transformed the industry? Destroyed Apple? Or would they have messed it up, because they're not Apple, and didn't have Steve Jobs and the culture surrounding him.

And how much of the iPhone "magic" isn't even in the device? It's in the network supporting it and the fact that there's millions of these things and everyone in your family has one.

Around 1980-1, I saw a sort of "lifestyle" magazine marketing thing from HP, and it focused on the idea of a ubiquitous handheld device, and the wonders it would do. 27 years later the first iPhone came out (in a world of ubiquitous cell phones and the occasional "smart" phone). HP didn't make the iPhone, HPs handheld experience pretty much peaked in the late mid-90s with their amazing calculators and their palmtop PCs.

If we saw the iPhone in 1988, would we have considered it "magic"? Or just "really neat". 30 years may not be enough, but get more than that, and it become even more inscrutable, even more "magical".

So, investing in future tech. With so many unknowns, and no promises, is very risky. For a smaller company, 1% may not be that big of a deal, but they'd also be the least likely to truly exploit it. And a larger company, well, they already have "plans", and a technology company has plans 5-10-20 years out. And "1%" is a lot of money.


I'm favored towards a moderately strong "no", possibly an absolute "no". There are several points that would make me rather uneasy.

The most important obstacle is that the stranger is, apparently, from the future, and presents some voodoo thing of which he doesn't know how it generally works or how it would generally be produced, or of what materials.

I am not a chip designer, but I could very well give you a general idea of how computer chips are produced, and what materials are needed. I am not a car manufacturer, but I could very well tell you most of the relevant details about a car, including the materials used.

This suggests that this is not a "normal" item from the stranger's time. He might have gotten it from someone else (aliens who first give you technology, and then make it fail prior to the invasion! wait, where have I heard that idea before...). Or, he might have stolen the device (again, where have I heard that idea before), possibly from a secret laboratory or from someone further in the future.
So, in summary, this means you need to prepare for either chaos and destruction coming your way, or some heavily armed, angry person from the future looking for their stolen stuff. Which kinda boils down to chaos and destruction, too.

Then, there is the Number 1 rule of scam. If it looks too good to be true, then it is not true. If a Nigerian prince offers you a million, and you only need to pay the transaction fees, then you shouldn't pay the fees.

Also, there is the yet unanswered question that every manager inevitably asks first during a sales pitch: "Well, that's nice. How do we make money of that?" It is not clear how you can make money out of the item. You cannot reproduce it, so you cannot really sell it. You might only be able to use it for something. Remains to be seen how useful that is for you.

The device is allegedly able to make itself "unavailable". What guarantee do you have that after having paid the device remains operational? Does it maybe operate for exactly 168 hours, as it happens?

What end-of-lifetime properties does an unknown device of unknown materials given by an obscure stranger have? Does it just cease to work? Does it create a black hole that swallows the planet? Do your ancestors' captured souls that make the device work escape from it only to take vengeance on all living beings they encounter?

Lastly, life is hard, and it's unfair, too. If word spreads (and word will spread) that you own a sort of super device, governmental thugs will take it and will waterboard you for months to extract the smallest piece of information that you may possibly know about it. Why, that's a fabulous perspective. Let's do this for fun and profit!

  • $\begingroup$ Like many readers, I first assumed the OP was suggesting something like a smartphone. If the time traveler is no technological expert themselves, they might genuinely be unable to explain how the device works. The same applies to a lot of modern technology: today's digital devices are much more obscure in how they actually work than their mechanical ancestors. Of course, that fact would not be at all obvious to someone 30 years ago, and yes, might be highly suspicious. $\endgroup$ – Llewellyn Jun 9 '18 at 15:16
  • $\begingroup$ The question has been clarified that the device(s) will continue to work after the 168 hour review period. $\endgroup$ – Green Jun 11 '18 at 12:34
  • $\begingroup$ What's the guarantee, though? The stranger says once you've paid him, the threat of the device making itself unavailable is over. That's like paying a kidnapper... once you've paid the ransom, they promise to no longer kill your child. How do you know? $\endgroup$ – Damon Jun 12 '18 at 14:33

Buy it

Even when there is no hope to reverse engineer the device, the device may have some useful functionalities that no recent device in our time has (like cracking cryptography considered secure for now, spitting out new bitcoins at incredible speed, including a microchip design program that lets you build the most advanced chips of the world, ...) and you can just use the functionality of the device for profit.

  • $\begingroup$ If you can figure out how to program it, using it for bitcoin mining certainly will be a very profitable venture. Handheld devices of today are approaching 100 times faster than supercomputers of 1988, and I see no reason not to expect that trend to continue, at least to some degree. $\endgroup$ – Jules Jun 10 '18 at 17:22


There seems to be one major motivation for this stranger, Self-Interest, and we know we can trust him on this!

Assuming he did his research and really only cares about making a profit; We must have made a lot of money this year even without his help, especially considering he knows us from 30 years later.

We also know we don't have to worry about impacting the future. That means that whether our company is meant to thrive or fail, this object will change nothing.

In the end, that means there is no benefit for us to accept his offer. Only risk if the future has policing or laws in regards to time travel. I am not willing to take any risk so this stranger can make money off me and my company.

  • $\begingroup$ Not worth the risk if the innovations you get are worth 1 trillion dollars over 30 years? $\endgroup$ – Green Jun 11 '18 at 12:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Green We do not need to worry about considerations of impacting the future, which means it will not impact the future either way, which means we get nothing from it. $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Jun 11 '18 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ I meant "Don't worry about what the effects on the future will be", not "No matter what you do, it won't have an effect on the future." As time-travel questions so easily spiral out of control, I wanted to eliminate any discussion about time-loops, paradoxes, etc. I'm interested in risk-assessment in a novel situation. $\endgroup$ – Green Jun 11 '18 at 17:13
  • $\begingroup$ My risk assessment is that if I do not need to worry about the effects on the future then taking it has no discernible effect. ie: no reward no matter the risk. $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Jun 11 '18 at 18:21

It all depends on what the stranger is selling.

If a stranger came to me selling 10 laptops from the future with developments tools, virtualisation tools, manuals in PDF format and the source of future *BSD and *Linux tools, I would:

  • reverse engineer how to develop software for them;
  • reverse engineer how to connect them to the existing Internet network, both hardware and middleware;
  • use their superior capabilities of storage and processing to supply AWS/Ali cloud competing services without having most of the associated costs;
  • specialise in selling those VMs to the financial and banking industry as tampering/resistant to hacking VMs. As coming to from the future, any bugs discovered in the present will be automatically fixed in the future;
  • use the sources to develop software products and software patches far ahead of anything known and release them slowly over the years, becoming a well entrenched name in the industry.

Sure, I would not be able to duplicate the hardware with present technology, but that would give me an huge boost and a window into the future.


How do you use the technology? With ten (10) units hardly at all. One problem in devising how to use the devices, is not knowing precisely what the devices do or what technology the CEO's company manufactures.

For example, if the devices were large-scale servers then ten small server equivalents can only be sold ten times. Replacing ten large-scale servers. Now it depending on how they can be sold at best you can sell the future devices for the same or somewhat better than the current devices. So buying ten future devices for 1% of your company's profits doesn't seem like a good investment.

Since it is highly doubtful that the future technology can be replicated. The only way a company could be expected to turn a profit is by selling large numbers of units. If you're limited to only selling ten units, then it seems unlikely you can turn a profit.

Possibly, your company could sell the future devices to the government and let them find out how to reverse engineer their technology. of course, this sale will done with an agreement that your company has first rights on commercializing the future technology.

In fact, this seems to be the most profitable route for your company to take. Anything else would be fruitless.


100% Yes.

Ask your accountant and finance department to make the company unprofitable for three years. If the company has negative profit, does it mean that we need to make negative payments too?

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding, The Lyrist! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. You may also find Worldbuilding Meta and The Sandbox (both of which require 5 rep to post on) useful. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – FoxElemental Jun 7 '18 at 23:26
  • $\begingroup$ This approach would fall under 'shenanigans'. As the time traveler would have complete records of your company's financial history, this tactic would fail. $\endgroup$ – Green Jun 11 '18 at 12:31

You don’t need to buy it, because just having seen and used it gives you 90% of the benefit. Now that you know not just that it’s possible but that it will be a desirable and marketable product in thirty years’ time, you can redirect the efforts of your company towards duplicating it, selling the intermediate products along the way, and get there in twenty years instead, putting you ten years ahead of the competition. In fact, I wonder if Steve Jobs received such a visit around fifteen years ago.


Do not make this deal. Also, start looking for a new job.

But, they will sell you up to 10 devices for 1% of your net profits this year.

Why would a time traveler from the future want 1% of my profits from this year? They know the future. They should know if this investment will make my company flourish or not. But researching this device is a long-term investment. It will certainly not gain me any profits in this fiscal year. The profits will come in the next 3 decades.

If the time traveler would know that this is a good deal for me, they would want to be paid in stocks or a more long-term profit sharing agreement. But they do not. They are only interested in my short-term profits. That means they obviously know something about my companie's future I know not. In the best case, this device has absolutely no value for me. In the worst case, they know that my company won't exist anymore in 2 years from now.

I would compliment them out. Then I would call my headhunter and tell him to find me a new job within a year. Preferably somewhere far, far away. And unless me from the future shows up immediately and tells me to run after the time traveler, I would be very confident that this is the right decision.

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    $\begingroup$ By the way: I might be more open to this business proposal it if the guy had claimed to be an alien, from a parallel universe or the devil. But never make business with a time traveler. $\endgroup$ – Philipp Jun 10 '18 at 13:44

Funny question.

In the history of informatic, for example, in the late 70s, at Xerox PARC they came up with the very first workstation complete with mouse. But this stuff never left the Xerox laboratories, since the company was trying its luck with mainframe and copiers, but not PCs. It took a visit from Steve Jobs, who was looking around for ideas, to develop it at Apple and launch it as part of the new McIntosh in 1984.

The trouble with future tech is that, well...it does not belong to our time. It will be developed under certain circumstances, it will take a combination of creativity and market demand. Let us say that someone in the record industry tried his luck and wanted to skip the whole vinyl step since the '60s. Even with a fantastic job of reverse-engineering, the final product would be so costly as to make it prohibitive for the market. Even when the conditions were more favoreable when it was launched, you had to spend hefty money for a set and even for 2 or 3 CDs. Starting in the '60s, people would have stuck to cheaper and simpler vinyl.

Internet is out of the question: before its creation, you should have a whole informatic world built around it, the right cabling, microprocessors...

The best tech from the future you could make money with is the simpler one. Ballpen, sticky notes, fabric, alloys, plastic, anything that can be easily mass-produced with an investment that will repay thousands of times and give you a monopoly.

EDIT: I would buy anything that would allow me to create a monopoly in the short term, not something that would take too much time and investment to reverse-engineer, with low probabilities to sell on the mass-market

  • $\begingroup$ You have some valuable insight there but I don't see an answer to the question. As CEO, do you buy or not? $\endgroup$ – Green Jun 11 '18 at 12:27
  • $\begingroup$ EDITED as per request $\endgroup$ – Valerio Pastore Jun 11 '18 at 12:34
  • $\begingroup$ My god, it just hit me there was a time traveller at Xerox ;) $\endgroup$ – Rui F Ribeiro Dec 20 '18 at 19:07

The way the deal is worded, there's only a limitation of not allowing "shenanigans" (reverse engineering, etc) until the items are bought. After that, test and copy away.

Even if you choose to leave them alone, their usefulness as a more powerful processing device makes them useful for R&D, or any other uses one could imagine. That alone should give the company an edge.

I'm reminded of a Justice League Unlimited episode where the baddies send a common day laptop back to WWII Germany. Its computational power is so far past anything in the day it allows the Axis to design amazing new weaponry and tech.


What if it has a removable SSD in it? SATA might still be used in some cases, and USB and Ethernet in some form might still be around (RJ45 ethernet cable has been around 28 years). Some formats live forever, JPEG is 28 years old, GIF is 31, and TIFF is 32, and RS-232 Serial is 58 years old. In the last 30 years, we have gone from 10MB hard drives to 10GB and now 10TB. Even with an SSD, you might find one with a million times more storage than we have now. Just think what you could do with it.

I buy and sell used electronics for a living and sometimes get things i dont know what they do and turn out to be valuable, and sometimes find components worth far more than the whole device sells for (scsi to ide adapters). Sometimes i get ripped off (device no longer serves a purpose, requires other obscure hardware or software to run, or requires expensive repairs). Imagine if for a kludge, there was a std to quantum computer adapter in it. Or like 2 fax machines on opposite sides of the country 75 years ago. You have a business at each side, advertise "Send documents from NY to LA in 5 minutes for $5". You put the fax machines inside a period looking machine and a slot for the paper and runs off the current phone lines.

Granted, it might just be something that a novelty, like a mini 3D hologram projector, that you could put on a conference table to impress clients displaying prototypes of other items, but when they ask about it, tell them its not ready to mass market, costs too much to produce and the equipment to mass produce it isn't available.

Imagine if you could bring a high end windows 2012 server back to 1988. Some software from 1988 could still run on that equipment and the serial, parallel, floppy and network could still talk to things back then. Roomfuls of equipment could be replaced with that one machine. Hundred or thousands of terminals could run off of it.

  • $\begingroup$ Hi Matt, this doesn't answer my question. As CEO, do you buy these devices or not. You don't know and can't know what's in them or how they were made. You just know what they can do. $\endgroup$ – Green Jun 11 '18 at 12:29
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    $\begingroup$ I would buy it. I buy and sell used electronics for a living and sometimes get things i dont know what they do and turn out to be valuable, and sometimes find components worth far more than the whole device sells for (scsi to ide adapters). Sometimes i get ripped off (device no longer serves a purpose, requires other obscure hardware or software to run, or requires expensive repairs). Imagine if for a kludge, there was a std to quantum computer adapter in it. Or like 2 fax machines on opposite sides of the country 75 years ago. No one sees them, but you sell a service to send things instantly $\endgroup$ – Matt Hill Jun 12 '18 at 13:21
  • $\begingroup$ Put that in your answer and I'll upvote it! Of everyone who's answered thus far, you've offered the closest real world experience to what I'm describing. $\endgroup$ – Green Jun 12 '18 at 13:43

Yes / No

Depends on the device !
You need a device thats would be able to be used 30 years in the past or able to display its content. The content must worth enought on their own. Like a tablette with 30 years of music / film / video games / book.

Your company won't have any profite of it as you will create a new one for all this be the new Producer.

  • $\begingroup$ Considering that during the demonstration the device was showing enough data and of a kind that couldnt be an illusion to convince the CEO and R&D that this is the genuine article, I would assume that it has enough methods to provide interaction and display with. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Jun 7 '18 at 13:48


You know well good that this men is actually a spy/worker at factory that produce such equipment for your competitor.

Why you know that? Because that is how the world roll. Why all cloth chain stores have same color schemes at summer or winter? 2 years earlier there came a guy from factory and said "we're making those for Bolce&Dabana. We can change it a little bit to so make it affordable to sell for 19,99 and produce similar things for you".

And then end customer goes to H&M and can choose gold and blue themed clothes. At Zara they can choose from gold and blue themed clothes. And they all look very similar.

so the same thing goes in technology field.

technology is not only easier to proven that it was stolen but also you can get sued (and loss) because curves on your smartphone are too similar to curves on competitor housing.

And do you know how your smartphone works? No. Does the people who assembled it at factory knows? No. There is even a term for people who know how to make a thing but have no idea how to use it or what's the purpose of said tool.

This guy is shaaaaaady as duck. He can be 30 years from the future or 12 hours from the future (if you get the joke) whatever it is you're buying stolen technology. Say hello to your new holes in knees drilled by CIA. Because they won't take "guy from future sold it to us" as an answer.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ The question specifically states The stranger is trustworthy and the device performs as advertised, so the premise of your answer is flawed. $\endgroup$ – walrus Jun 7 '18 at 9:13
  • $\begingroup$ Why? He is trustworthy to CEO. Not anyone around who want to know where and how they got that technology. And what device performance have to do with anything? $\endgroup$ – SZCZERZO KŁY Jun 7 '18 at 9:54
  • $\begingroup$ The device performing as advertised is less relevant. The question is predicated on the premise that the stranger is trustworthy, which invalidates your starting assertion that You know well good that this men is actually a spy/worker at factory that produce such equipment for your competitor. $\endgroup$ – walrus Jun 7 '18 at 10:50
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Strangers are by definition not trustworthy $\endgroup$ – Callum Bradbury Jun 7 '18 at 11:27
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Um, the question very clearly states that this device cannot be made with current techniques or technology. The CEO knows this from his own domain experience and the domain experience of his engineers. If your competitors are bringing this kind of thing to market, you would know about it. $\endgroup$ – Green Jun 7 '18 at 13:35

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