The year is 2100. Internet 3.0 has arrived, with an ubiquitous Internet of Things. Even your wedding band has a fingerprint scanner to make sure it doesn't get stolen. An evil AI has been developed and is determined to kill everyone; however, people are still active enough that it can't make any preparations for the first assault or they would notice. It must use what it has.

For the first assault, therefore, it has decided to crash and/or disable all means of transportation, burn all buildings, and disable all electronic communication. To ignite the homes, it decided to short out or overload the batteries on all electronic devices. Assuming each home has 3 or more such devices and 99% of personal computing devices (cellphones, laptops, and desktops) and servers successfully ignite in a 6 hour time frame, what happens to the city?

The fire department cannot get to the scene (remember, their truck either won't start or was smashed into a tree/building/whatever), the phone system is down (there is no centralized system that can take control until after the 6-hour period is over--if then), and other events are wounding and killing people rapidly. Additionally, the water supply has been shut down, along with the rest of the computer-controlled infrastructure. Essentially, any firefighting efforts are by individual people. In a city the same size as 2018 Chicago with 90% of the buildings 30 years old or less and built with 2018 building materials, techniques, and codes, what would the result of such an action be?

Would fires even start? If they did, would people be able to put the fires out as they started, or would the fire take hold? I know a single home would burn to the ground, but would about skyscrapers and commercial buildings? Would it burn a single room out, or would the whole building burn down? Would it be able to spread to other buildings as it would in the suburbs, or would it remain localized to one building?

  • $\begingroup$ Considering the fact that today a LOT of houses/bldgs in the U.S. still have 2-prong outlets, expecting more than 50% of buildings in 2100 Chicago to be burn-downable by internet command is a stretch (it takes forever for tech to percolate everywhere): what kind of devices do you imagine would be in a home that could be forced to burn? Also, with each passing year firecode requires less and less combustible material in bldgs. By 2100, it might not be possible to bring down more than the occasional building anywhere but the oldest quarters of the city. $\endgroup$ Sep 10, 2018 at 22:43
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    $\begingroup$ Is private electrical storage going to skyrocket (like every other house will have its own "Tesla Powerwall" or its equivalent)? $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Sep 10, 2018 at 23:04
  • $\begingroup$ Good question, @Alexander. I didn't know about that; let's assume not for now. $\endgroup$
    – user39548
    Sep 10, 2018 at 23:12
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH I'm imagining mostly cellphones and laptops, but as Tim pointed out in his answer, they may well not be (very) flammable in the future. Basically, I'd like answers whether you think it could happen today (the future is only needed because of the AI which we don't have). $\endgroup$
    – user39548
    Sep 10, 2018 at 23:14
  • $\begingroup$ Software cannot short circuit batteries. Only Samsung engineers do that. $\endgroup$ Sep 11, 2018 at 2:18

4 Answers 4


This is not what the 'Internet of Things' actually is.

There's a lot of good reasons not to let most things be controlled remotely, and strangely enough most of them have nothing to do with 'Evil AIs'. It's more to do with Evil People.

Even pacemakers have hacking concerns around them thanks to connectivity designed to let medical professionals download diagnostics from them. Ultimately, there's only 2 things you can do in this case - you can increase the security around the data interface and wear (no pun intended) the residual risk, or you can make the data a 1 way stream of information, and accept that you lose the ability to 'control' the device that does the transmitting.

Add to that, contrary to what most TV shows would have you believe, it's not that easy to program a device to explode by overheating its battery. The recent Samsung issues taught us that long battery life comes at a cost in terms of risk and most batteries that CAN be overloaded won't be available in consumer devices because of the potential liability the manufacturers will wear.

Your premise assumes that you have a city chock full of fully (or over) charged batteries lying around, all in devices that contain security flaws that allow hackers to target the battery somehow, and that these devices are all part of an IoT that allows every device to be remotely controlled.

We won't do that. Not because we can't, but because it's (in a word) dumb. No company is going to carry that kind of liability in its product suites.

If you REALLY want to do some damage though, try the SCADA control systems of electrical and water infrastructure. If you can hack that, you can bring down a city's power grid (for example) and then the IoT can't support daily life the way humans in that city have become accustomed to having their lives supported.

No fires, but no ability to conduct daily life either. Far more destructive.

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    $\begingroup$ You know, when you color outside the box and ask, "what could a renegade networked AI actually do?" this gets much more interesting. He could delete centuries worth of accessible data, stop all ip-based communication (not my Netflix!), it could begin changing things! (The ultimate identity theft.) People are dumb enough to connect their garage doors to the Internet (welcome burglers!) With a little thought, you could describe how the first-world could be reduced to utter chaos in two days (the burglars need a bit of time). $\endgroup$ Sep 11, 2018 at 0:16
  • $\begingroup$ This would be a valid scenario, but it would be called "looting" in my situation, I think :) $\endgroup$
    – user39548
    Sep 11, 2018 at 0:52
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH - People who have the ability to hack into garage doors usually work and do not need to rob homes. Why bother with that anyway if brute force and/or skill is sufficient and serves as a universal key? Hacking requires quite some skill and intelligence, and if you got that, you can find a job - or better means to acquire money amorally. $\endgroup$
    – Battle
    Sep 11, 2018 at 9:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Battle, Who said anything about people having the ability to hack into garage doors? The AI can hack the garage door, producing chaos due to crimes of opportunity. $\endgroup$ Sep 11, 2018 at 14:42

Natural Gas

Instead of going through the effort of breaking into every electronic in the city, let's use a much simpler route that still has the potential to do a lot of damage to a city: Natural Gas.

Natural gas pipelines have a pressure range that varies depending on whether the pipe is designed for distribution, home use, or other. According to this site, "the maximum gas supply pressure must not exceed 14" [~35.5 cm] water column (3487 pa or 34.9 Millibars [~0.5 psi])". Gas pressure can be measured with a clear U shaped pipe filled with water, and the water will blow out at that pressure to stop the pipe from exploding.

When doing a search for natural gas pipelines on Google (I am probably being tracked by multiple government agencies by now), I found this quote on energy.gov: "In addition, there is a large [natural gas] processing plant near Chicago."

What all of this means:

If your AI can break into a natural gas pipeline and increase the pipeline pressure way beyond the rated pressure, many of those water columns will blow the water out, meaning the gas inside the pipe is also released, and with all of those electronics around, it is only a matter of time before one of them sparks. Alternatively, if there is some kind of pressure regulation built in to the transition between distribution and domestic pipelines, the underground pipelines will build up pressure until some part gives way and explodes. Either way, you will have massive gas explosions throughout the city. Combine that with a shutdown of the water works and an electrical surge, and stopping the fire will be very difficult, maybe impossible depending on how many explosions there are.

Ever noticed that a lot of Worldbuilding posts have to do with destroying Chicago?

  • $\begingroup$ @JBH -- a distribution overpressure would be quite good at lighting big chunks of the city on fire indeed (as a side effect of blowing it up). If you got a gas transmission SCADA system, you could simply run the compressors full bore until the pipe failed, disregarding any pressure limits on the pipe itself. $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    Sep 11, 2018 at 2:40
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH -- I haven't heard of any such hardware limiting on gas transmission pressures, although such could exist. I'd think a distribution-side overpressure would be a more reliable route though due to the damage to distribution regulators it'd cause, overpressuring appliances to the point where destruction (from either fire or gas explosion) is inevitable. $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    Sep 11, 2018 at 3:10
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH -- while there are relief valves in pipeline systems -- they are "set it and forget it" devices, and cannot be counted on to keep an in-service pipeline out of danger under all circumstances. You get a compressor working against a closed block downstream, and you'll find out the hard way about any dings or flaws that have appeared/grown in the pipe since the last time you pressure tested it. (Olympic's little gasoline pipe blow-up in Bellingham in '99 is a good example of this.) $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    Sep 11, 2018 at 3:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Shalvenay, now we're talking. I'm removing my comments and offering a formal apology. That link to the Olympic Bellingham rupture is a good example (and an interesting read). It still had human error that an AI could not predict or control, but there was enough computer error that could plausibly be controlled by an AI to justify using a gas or other combustible fuel rupture as an ignition source. Thanks! JOHN, If Shalvenay doesn't object, I'd recommend weaving this narrative into your answer. $\endgroup$ Sep 11, 2018 at 4:25

Modern day building codes are good - we have learned from experience.

The fire requirements of modern day commercial buildings are much higher than single residences.

The key to most modern-day codes is the concept of fire compartments. Usually every floor is it's own fire compartment, and also every apartment too. The concept is fire-rated construction (sometimes a 'fire-wall') is dividing compartments: this could be concrete, non-combustable gyprock or other non-flammable (in fact fire-resisting) material that would prevent fire from spreading to the remainder of the building.

Fire-codes are pretty strict now-a-days so even small penetrations or doors are dampened or detailed carefully.

So even if an apartment is on fire - it would be unlikely it could spread to another even if the fire department was ineffective.

Even modern day single houses must be separated by distance or a wall to prevent fire from rapidly spreading - although in a suburban context usually there are trees or other flammable objects that are unable to be regulated.

I am not convinced servers catching on fire would cause the whole city to burn down - perhaps a spot fire here or there at most.


All buildings that are "industrial" have this small things that dispense water when it's too hot. It's mechanical system so it' cannot be affected by AI. It's also rigged so if only one dispenser take off whole building is noticed and evacuated.

You need to remember that your AI is not human. It's main target is to kill people. Burning them is the worst way to do it. Remember: Stop, lay down, roll over? BUM! Person is no longer on fire.

What your AI would do is to create small short circuits so that the cables would overheat and the coating would melt. It's enough to poison people and with certain types of buildings (so called SMART) people cannot escape and are locked in aquariums that are NOT filled with breathable air. In house it's little trickier but don't worry, Ai just wait when everybody is asleep, move the roombas to that beautiful plastic chair from UNKEA and start melting the plastic. The plastic is of course not combustible with such small temperature but is enough to remove ait from the rooms.

You don't need to combust a lot of PVC cable to produce hydro chloride gas. One meter (so reasonable extension cord is enough to fill 10 cubic metres). Look under your desk. How much cables do you see? more than one metre?

Now, not all people die from poisoning. Some get to the hospitals, where they are treated with proper medical supplies. Oh noes, somebody months earlier changed the printing on bottles so when the content is given to people with poisoning it make them die even faster.

also if the AI want to kill everyone it would hijack planes and look for rogue nuclear warheads it can fire. Look how many people died because two planes flew into two towers (I remember). People are the best tools to kill more people.


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