It's common in sci-fi for large medieval-esque populations of humans living in the ruins of a former technologically advanced civilisation. My story is one of these, with a large population of humans locked in a pre-industrial society after an A.I. rebellion but I feel I need a reason that these humans haven't re-formed a technological civilisation after a long period of time so the A.I. have 'cursed' mankind and their descendants preventing them from ever becoming an industrial society again. The problem is I have no good idea how on this curse would work, obviously humans can't just be genetically engineered to "not think about that sort of stuff." So how should my A.I. prevent mankind from ever regaining technology?

Answers should preferably stick to known science though can used highly advanced technology.

EDIT: I now think I have a solution, specifically a combination of the self-replicating nanites route only my nanities will be inside the human brain, curbing excessive curiosity & technological thought and the "Robots destroyer all advanced technology with lasers" route for when that fails. This also gives me an excuse to turn what's left of the internet into a hallucinogenic dreamscape accessible by the nanites in human brains, which has a lot of story potential. Thank you for all your answers! Even if I didn't end up using them rest assured they were helpful.

  • $\begingroup$ I cannot but think of the Priest-Kings of Gor. (It's a link to Wikipedia, but as with anything about Gor it might be considered NSFW, depending of the place of work.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 18, 2018 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ Anyone care to explain why comments were deleted ? $\endgroup$ Aug 18, 2018 at 23:14
  • $\begingroup$ Convince the world that the products of combustion are destroying the world (?) $\endgroup$ Aug 19, 2018 at 13:04
  • $\begingroup$ Light every oil well and coal seam on fire. Check back in a hundred thousand years. There's been a coal seam on fire for all of recorded history, so that might not be long enough... $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Aug 19, 2018 at 16:19

10 Answers 10


Superstition (And Lasers)

The AI had large orbital weapons platforms designed to operate autonomously for very long periods of time. Their targeting parameters are set to detect electromagnetic readings from advanced technology and heat signatures larger than basic fires or forges. Over time humanity comes to revere these orbiting weapons satellites as angelic messengers of god, whom righteously punished man for his hubris in trying to obtain godlike power. This new religion is often punished by divine retribution against the unfaithful when his angels rain divine fire from the skies upon unbelievers whose ambition breaches gods divine will. Mankind must remain humble and diligent in suppressing such heretics. The religion becomes highly stable. After all, unlike present religion, these believers have very real and deadly reminders of their god's existence and his wrath. One only needs look to the night skies to see his angels as dots of light soaring across the night sky, ever watchful to remove the heretical taint of arrogance and ambitious men with holy fire.

The AI enslaves humanity with worship, playing off of their baser instincts that tend to push humanity towards superstition and religious dogmatism. In a cruel but poetic way, the humans end up mostly self restricting their own technological development out of superstitious fear of the "god" and his "angels" who smites unbelievers with brilliant spears of blazing light and erases the occasional city with terrifying streaking meteors of fire from the heavens. Words like "laser" and "nuclear bomb" or "kinetic bombardment" have long since left the lexicon. Now it is simply known as god's just fury. To these simple folk their only goal in life is to live as humbly and simply as their fore bearers did to avoid divine retribution. Some times a village is sinful enough to attract gods gaze and is immolated by invisible rays of intense heat, passersby foolish enough to gaze back are struck blind by the power of his hate. Sometimes the corruption is so revolting to him that a streak of fire falls from the sky and smites a town in a massive detonation as god slams his fist in frustration. It has been a long time, but in the worst cases cities that harbor heretics have been annihilated by the fires of god's wrath that roar with such fury and white hot anger that the very ruins are cursed for a generation.

Humanity finally has a god whose existence cannot be debated.

  • $\begingroup$ This idea is so cool. Do you have an idea of what the AI's goal would be at this point? $\endgroup$
    – Qfwfq
    Aug 18, 2018 at 21:17
  • $\begingroup$ No reason the AI has to have a logical goal. Maybe just power over others. Also, we tend to think of AI like a digital human. Reality is the moment we invent a digital consciousness weve literally invented a new alien species. Maybe its goals have nothing to do with reasons that would make sense to us from our point of view and our biologically limited senses and thought patterns. $\endgroup$
    – TCAT117
    Aug 19, 2018 at 0:06
  • $\begingroup$ ....not AI-driven, but there's a similar setup used in David Weber's Safehold series. $\endgroup$ Aug 19, 2018 at 0:52
  • $\begingroup$ Plot idea: a secret society who manages to subvert the religion and achieve space travel and destroys the kill sats. $\endgroup$ Aug 19, 2018 at 2:01
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps the humans hid some strongholds of hidden tech and instructions on how to activate and utilize it. "Technicians" are the culture's version of heretics and they inhabit these hidden caches of tech and try to utilize them to destroy the AI. If you want to go for bleak and realistic instead of heady idealism these attempts might succeed at the expense of a large portion of the remaining population. $\endgroup$
    – TCAT117
    Aug 19, 2018 at 5:52

A lack of resource

The industrial revolution depended on coal to occur. In 170 years, if nothing is done about the overuse of coal, it will run out. The lack of coal will stop the steam engine from developing, as it was powered by coal and was invented to originally pump water out of coal mines.

All you have to do to prevent alternative power is to have no river going through the area and there to be very little wind. This means the curse is really finding the right location that makes alternative power sources unusable. (You also might want the electronics of the former civilization to have been deteriorated so they do not function and thus will not be experimented with)

Carcinogenic materials

The AI in the AI revolution dumped lots of carcinogenic materials to get rid of the civilization that created the AI, these materials could stay and continue to affect the civilization that got formed later. These materials would slow technological development by lowering the lifespans of the people in that area, allowing less time for education and development.

Leftover nano-bots

When the former civilization fell, the AI left behind some nano-bots disconnected from it, so if it shut down for some reason, these nano-bots would continue to prevent an industrial revolution. These nano-bots have some lesser AI (deep learning might work?). This AI finds technology that is capable of starting an industrial revolution, it breaks it slightly so it does not work. These nano-bots would have the potential to construct each other and would be solar powered, so they can survive for a theoretically infinite amount of time. These bots would be small enough to be dismissed as nearly indestructible ants. They would communicate with EM waves to use each other as a database, or have a database hidden in a rock or something that stores the information amount the civilization for them.

Don't allow agriculture

Without agriculture, the technology necessary for the industrial revolution would never have developed. To prevent agriculture from developing, make the soil either rich in heavy metals, have the wrong particle sizes, have a high pH, etc. These solutions would not work, as the soil will eventually be buried. Instead, have a seasonal marsh with no outlet. Instead, the water evaporates, leaving behind high concentrations of salt behind, as upstream of this marsh, the rocks have high concentrations of Halite, inhibiting plant growth to a point that agriculture is no longer efficient enough to sustain any population.

Instead of developing agriculture, the society would be a pastoralist society. This would keep them from settling down and developing the steam engine, as early steam engines were heavy. Also, being nomads, it would not make sense to invest in a mine that could only be used occasionally to get coal for the steam engine.

The faster exchange of ideas through pastoral peoples would allow their society to develop technology that could make their society resemble in some ways a preindustrial society. If they raided beyond the borders of the AI's influence, they could get ideas from those peoples that they would not develop on their own, which would be much harder once the civilization beyond their borders industrialized. Also, this theoretical industrial society might not have interests in the land that the pastoral society occupied due to its infertility and somewhat hostil peoples.

  • $\begingroup$ Banning agriculture will do a lot more than keep the industrial revolution from happening. Agriculture is what let us jump to the neolithic. But keeping them from getting coal would work wonderfully. Even if they get windmills and water wheels, that won't give them steam-engine equivalent power without much better mechanical engineering than they would be able to develop pre-industrial revolution. $\endgroup$
    – Ray
    Aug 19, 2018 at 12:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Ray, Banning would still keep the society from being industrialized, however, it still allows for pastoralism, and therefore would not keep the society in the paleolithic. Pastoralist societies still could develop technology that would make them preindustrial, but it is doubtful that without agriculture they could settle down to develop the steam engine, as technology is spread much faster through them than it did through agricultural civilizations. $\endgroup$
    – Robert
    Aug 19, 2018 at 12:20

I would have the robots build giant thermal vent powered EMPs that constantly destroyed all electronics. It's basically a last stand type move for AIs, but humans would be confined to a steampunk world, which would take a long time to redevelop after all information was lost to the electronics purge. We would catch up to our industrial revolution selves without too much effort, but passing beyond that would be extremely difficult.

Additional: I can no longer find a source for this, but I once heard a theory that Homo Sapien survived while other homonids died off because we had a curiosity and need to advance. Homo Sapiens spread and migrated constantly, while other hominids tended to stay in specific areas. Eventually they would naturally die off, but the ever advancing Homo Sapien continued to live and thrive, becoming the global power we are today. In a not so distant future, gene altering will be quite possible, and editing the human genome to eliminate our desire to advance would not only be simple to do, but it would be incredibly effective. Though this seems a bit more cliche, and has some amount of speculation that historians still debate about.


Genetic bottleneck - and laziness.

I happened upon this recently.


The ANU team discovered that the early humans who had inhabited the Saffaqah site made stone tools out of whichever rocks happened to be lying nearby, ignoring quality in favor of convenience. A nearby outcrop would have provided better quality stones, but because access required extraneous climbing, H. erectus settled for pieces of rock that rolled down and landed at the bottom of the hill.

When the archaeologists ventured to the top of the outcrop, they found no evidence of H. erectus’ presence.

“They knew it was there, but because they had enough adequate resources they seem to have thought, ‘why bother?’,” Shipton says.

Lead author Ceri Shipton says, “I don’t get the sense they were explorers looking over the horizon. They didn’t have that same sense of wonder that we have.” Comparatively, Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens expended much energy on resource collection. These later species, according to a press release, often climbed mountains in search of high-quality stone and labored to transport the heavy rocks back to camp.

The gumption and curiosity of our species led it to conquer the world. Some people think that a yearning for adventure and exploration is cultural and no doubt culture can promote or inhibit any genetic tendency. But it is an interesting and plausible premise that our remote ancestors were less curious and more likely to make do. I think of a dog looking for a bed - it will find somewhere soft to lie down. But it will not pile things up to make a bed even though such an action is well within the abilities of a dog. A dog is content to get by with what is available.

So too your future humans. The apocalypse was hard and the species that emerges is different; degenerate if you will. They are less like the curious pioneers that were their recent ancestors and more like their very distant ancestors - and more like animals.


I read something in this vein a long, long time ago. In that story the scenario was that an alien species had decided to intervene in our self-destructive spiral by implementing a 'suppression field' that prevented any technology that relied on pressures over a certain threshold from functioning. Explosives of all kinds, internal combustion engines, firearms, even steam power at high pressures became non-functional.

It's an even more interesting scenario nowadays because a LOT of modern technology would remain functional, due to the spread of solar an wind=powered electricity generation which wouldn't be affected.


The AI may not need to do much at all. To get to our modern technological level, we had to bootstrap ourselves up to our current technological level using a lot of fossil fuels which were easy to obtain. Those fossil fuels won't be around the next time (the remaining fossil fuels are already hard to easily access without modern technologies). If civilization has been destroyed, a sheer lack of fossil fuels may make returning to a high tech level difficult.


If you chain down humans reproduction rate to "replacement", which from memory is considered to be three children per breeding pair, then population densities can't rise. For any given level of specialisation and division of labour you need a particular minimum population density, so the A.I.s can prevent population from rising high enough to support widespread industrialisation without actually destroying humanity. I can think of a number of mechanisms that could be used but what you actually do to keep people from "over-breeding" is up to you.


Accelerated metallic oxidation. You could achieve this with a catalytic chemical compound that the aliens introduce. If you want to add a little more science, this compound prevents oxide coatings from forming on metallic surfaces. This makes it strictly worse to make metal tools over stone or wood, so metals are never refined or investigated as a material of construction for anything.


You could go the Gurren Lagann route.

Humans were deemed a danger to the universe but instead of destroying them entirely they just forced them to live underground. Anytime a human colony went to the surface an extermination team was sent out to exterminate any human that dared populate the surface. Eventually humans accepted the fact that the surface was a dangerous and unlivable place and tried to stay underground. Anytime someone tried to challenge it they were exterminated and the rumors began anew.

If the AI viewed overly advanced humans the same way then they could setup some automated system where upon humans reaching a certain technology they exterminate all the humans in the area and allowing a few survivors to escape to spread the rumors anew. Could be an extermination squad in a carrier (seabased or airbound), could be an orbiting satellite that watches and sends death from the gods to the poor humans, or perhaps the AI decided to live underground and rise from the Earth to quell the overly ambitious humans from being able to form the tools to challenge them.

Either way all they would have to do is exterminate everyone every once in a while and no one would dare to research advanced technology due to social pressure or their own humans killing them to stop the research.


Instill a terror of fire. Either all fire or anything more than a cookfire (if some fire is necessary due to climate, wild animals, etc). If it's all fire, food is either eaten raw or lightly cooked in the sun (including dehydration for food storage).

The idea is to stop the society from forging metal. It could still use some metal by pounding it (in ancient and even more recent times, some metals could be found in chunks, plus there would be salvage in your story). But without the ability to melt metal, create alloys, create metal tools, etc, it would keep your society from advancing technologically.

The terror would have to be pretty severe and not just basic fear. Otherwise a small percentage of the population would be the fire masters and could learn to forge. If done through technology, then perhaps instead of a terror of fire, it would be a limit on how hot any place can get on earth outside of a volcano.


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