This question is inspired by Could medieval people produce automatic firearms if they had access to the schematics?

I have simply moved it forwards in time as follows:

In 2019 we receive an alien broadcast that tells us in detail how to make an FTL drive (or some other technology that we would have taken centuries to discover on our own).


Is 2019 technology (not science) sufficiently advanced that given sufficient raw materials, we could make any conceivable human-scale artefact that the aliens specified? I say human-scale to exclude Dyson spheres or anything greater in size than say a pyramid.

Specifically: We already have electron microscopes, particle accelerators, incredibly accurate machine tools, nuclear power,etc. Surely we could make anything that the aliens described even if we didn't understand how it worked. Or can we imagine something that we can't possibly make, given modern technology and manufacturing knowledge?

To put it in different words. What manufacturing capabilities do we know that we don't have?


Assume that we can completely decipher the aliens' schematics and instructions even if we don't understand the science that explains how the thing works.

The aliens have told us what the artefact does and which levers to pull etc.

Assume we have the raw materials necessary and a huge budget has been allocated.


The aliens have been broadcasting this across the universe in the hope of helping unknown civilisations to have the benefit of their technology. By definition they must know the minimal level of our technology because if we didn't have electronics, we wouldn't be able to receive the message.


I should perhaps have made it clear that the aliens are broadcasting this information because they want us to know how to make it (hence the detailed schematic). Therefore I was assuming that they would include software and any other required information that they think we needed.

Presumably they could include the scientific theory behind the artefact as well. Remember this question is about our ability to manufacture the item, not about how to understand it.


It's too late to change this now because people have already answered but I'll mention it. My original intention was that the aliens want everyone to have this technology. They are broadcasting it in all directions not just to Earth. Also they may have sent the message way back in the past. There would not be any chance for back-and-forth. As I say, I won't make this a condition.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I would reference Contact - imdb.com/title/tt0118884 1997 movie. Similar concept - radio transmission of plans and the efforts to build "the machine". (Edit: Chat has similar questions... maybe your situations involves "unobtanium"?) $\endgroup$
    – WernerCD
    Commented Jan 19, 2019 at 22:32
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ How about the construction technology is doable, but has to be performed about 200 miles beneath the cloud tops of a gas giant? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 20, 2019 at 7:08
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Back in the mid-1800's, Charles Babbage designed a mechanical device for generating tables of sines, cosines, etc., but didn't get around to building it. In 1985 the Science Museum in London built it, partly to determine whether it could have been built given the level of technology back in the 1800's. There's more to building something that just knowing what it should look like. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 20, 2019 at 17:24
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ The alien intellectual property lawyers would sue our pants off. $\endgroup$
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 3:00
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ See A for Andromeda where received radio signals are the design for a computer that can do the building for us (in this case it's a humanoid). So even the schematics may be unnecessary. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 12:04

25 Answers 25


Surely we could make anything that the aliens described even if we didn't understand how it worked. Or can we imagine something that we can't possibly make, given modern technology and manufacturing knowledge?

Yes, we can. Some things that come to mind:

  • it requires some really exotic material (say, heavy transuranics or dark matter). The aliens also have methods to locate or manufacture those, but we don't. So, we need to first build the machines that will build the machines that will build the machines...
  • it requires much tighter tolerances - say, one-nanometer etching capability. We still don't have that (not at any industrially significant level, at least). Aliens have machines that do this, but they also require the same capability, much as modern chip factories require chips to work.

In both cases, we wouldn't need or be able to use the alien's XXVth century technology: we would need their 22nd century technology to be able to build their 23rd century machines that will enable us to build 24th century technology that will finally be able to use and build alien-current technology.

You say we now have "everything" - from electron microscopes to X-ray beams. We do have those, but how do we know they're "everything"? Maybe the aliens discovered micro-gravitics and are now based on that.

The belief that we had "everything" has already been declared "two or three times" in human history, and every time it turned out we were wrong.

the Rosetta transmission

The exact problem in your final edit is the premise of Fred Hoyle's A for Andromeda. In that novel, the Andromedans begin their transmission with simple mathematics, physics and biology, detailing several ways of constructing a simple but very large XXth century computer. This "preamble" of the transmission is followed by the program code for the computer. The computer then inquires about a lot of further parameters of its latest builders, and from that it directs how to build the secondary stage initiator of the process - which will then direct how to build the tertiary stage (in the novel, the process gets disrupted at this point).

So here's your answer - the transmission has to start from the very basics, and build up to complete proficiency. During this bootstrap process, some unforeseen circumstances may arise: for example Earthmen are the first race that, unbeknownst to the aliens, lack some specific very basic technology - see The Road Not Taken or Leinster's The Greks bring Gifts - or some fundamental and otherwise universal feature. Or just the drive to cooperate to use the technology for the good of all. Or the bootstrap process starts itself from a level too advanced (see above about tolerances).

(Giving technology as a Trojan horse or as an existential poison is a well known trope - in addition to the Greks bringing gifts, there's a story in Asimov's Great SF Stories about a Earth traveling salesman who's doing exactly that).

other possibilities of non-achievability: abhorrent technology

The required raw materials could include something that can't be easily duplicated or harvested, such as the brain matter of a healthy, full-grown adult of the species. In essence, human sacrifice.

While this wouldn't be anything difficult for, say, an ant colony, or a hive mind (or even a technologically advanced Aztec nation), it would be regarded as abhorrent and forbidden by most human governments, and, at least publicly, denounced by all.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Tighter tolerances? IBM wrote their name with elections... "We still don't have that." because no one is coughing up the money to do it. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 12:02
  • 27
    $\begingroup$ Tolerances is a big thing - It is believed the USSR had obtained schematics of many US weapons systems, e.g. the Stinger missile. But they couldn't effectively manufacture them because their factories did not have the numerically controlled machines and the culture of quality control to make such hi-tech products that worked. On the other hand, they could probably have managed to copy the Ford Pinto... $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 15:10
  • 15
    $\begingroup$ @OscarBravo - What could stop us? All the 6-axis milling machines in the world are broken. Or, this FTL drive calls for an 8-axis CNC machine. You know, those new ones that can manipulate space-time. Oh, you don't have any of those? $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 15:14
  • 29
    $\begingroup$ @Mazura I don't think you understand the magnitude of the communications problem to be solved. Take a real example that didn't involve any new technology: In WWII it was necessary to increase the production rate of military aircraft to keep pace with losses, by outsourcing the work to new manufacturers. The documentation required to build one type of plane "from scratch" was about 23,000 sheets of engineering drawings. Sure, you can transmit that amount information quickly, but somebody had to read and understand it all before they could get to work... $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Commented Jan 19, 2019 at 1:32
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ +1 there is plenty of technologies we even have, but which we can't scale. For example, manufacture of carbon nanotubes - we even know what to use them for, but we are quite far from producing them in required quantity and size -- and as far as I understand, -- it is not even clear b yet how to boost that, although research into that continues. $\endgroup$
    – Gnudiff
    Commented Jan 20, 2019 at 11:06

I have no real alien technology schematics at hand.

The closest thing I can think of is the schematics of something it is not manufactured in the factory of my employer. Let's say it is the latest smartphone of a top notch brand.

On those schematics I would see which parts I need and how to assemble them. Good so far.

However, if I don't have access to the parts, I won't be able to assemble anything. I might have the raw silicon used to manufacture the microchips, but I will have no clue on what to etch in that chip.

Even worse, the schematics do not include the software controlling how the parts interact together, unless the assembly is a purely mechanical one. The software is often the razor splitting an excellent product from an average one.*

In the case of an alien technology, it might mean the difference between a working copy and something resembling a cargo cult.

'* to detail on this, in the sector where I work many excellent manufacturers are protected from dishonest competitors simply copycatting their original products by the lack of knowledge on how the software has to work.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I should perhaps have made it clear that the aliens are broadcasting this information because they want us to know how to make it (hence the detailed schematic). Therefore I was assuming that they would include software and any other required information that they would think we needed. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 13:10
  • 31
    $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromUK the problem there is the aliens don't know what we need to know. They may think we know how to reverse the polarity or the neutron flow because it's a concept that they stumbled across early in their development. How could any civilisation not know how do do THAT? $\endgroup$
    – Sarriesfan
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 14:01
  • 14
    $\begingroup$ "Sure, these schematics look plenty reasonable. We could probably make it work easy enough... except the power source. The boys in the lab are half convinced that someone out there's pulling an elaborate prank on us; they tell us there's simply no possible way to synthesize that 'Elerium' stuff the whole thing is supposed to run on, and without it, the whole design falls apart..." $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 15:48
  • 10
    $\begingroup$ Just to add to the microchip problem... Even if you know exactly what compounds should end up where on the silicon and what the topography should be, you would still have a hard time producing the chip. One of the main problems with silicon manufacturing is the process. Even with point B clearly defined, getting from A to B is a significant engineering problem, one that may not be possible if the aliens have discovered a process that we are not familiar with, which is extremely likely. $\endgroup$
    – BlackThorn
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 18:18
  • 10
    $\begingroup$ Assume you have the schematic for Intel's latest CPU, but never thought up the idea of photolithography, or of making ultra-pure silicon wafers. You not only need the schematics for the device, you need the basic knowledge of how to build the tools. Then you need lots of money for a fab plant... $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 19:37

It could be one of many things:

  • A combination of sufficiently advanced precision and size. While we have the capability to manipulate individual atoms, arranging a football field worth of atoms is vastly beyond our capabilities. Or make it 3D and try to build a device with the volume of a family house with a precision of a single atom. Just letting the air come in contact with the half-finished product would ruin it, not to mention any interference from the building process (outgassing or fumes from the atom-manipulators themselves for example).
  • The design could be extremely sensitive to any kind of radiation, including gamma rays and X-rays. Maybe the aliens have no problems with it due to some local spatial anomaly or having a home planet devoid of any radioactives and with a crust made of lead, so they can assemble and operate the device underground. But we lack the capacity to create an absolutely radioactivity-free environment due to being bombarded with it from space and from below as well. Even our bodies are radioactive.
  • As an alternative to the above, make the design complicated enough and sensitive to even trace amounts of electromagnetic radiation of a very wide frequency spectrum. Good luck building anything complex and precise without using any electronics, letting light touch it or getting human brains and nerves nearby.
  • Anything sufficiently complicated and time critical. For example the aliens might have devised a way to stabilize and thus preserve the (for the design) essential extremely unstable isotopes that would normally decay in milliseconds, but the process requires an obscene amount of this isotope. We might be able to synthetise this isotope, but at most a couple hundred atoms at a time, with at least hours between two attempts. Oh, and the synthesis can only happen in a particle accelerator deep under Switzerland, while the assembly process needs a zero-G environment. Or, as suggested by vsz: antimatter, as we can only create a few atoms at a time, and neither the storage nor the transportation is solved as of yet.
  • Resource scarcity: the schematics might require a greater amount of some extremely rare but stable element than is estimated to exist on Earth. Like Radon, Tantalum, or something else. (I don't have the numbers at hand, so my estimates might be off the error chart, sorry). Even if this element occurs in a quantity large enough to construct the device, it could be a consumable for it and thus it could be simply not viable to operate the device for any useful purpose without strip-mining half of a continent or distilling the Pacific Ocean for the required "fuel".
  • Suggested by @bukwyrm as comment Purity: If the blueprint calls for materials at or near 100% purity (i.e. absolutely no foreign contaminants, maybe not even a single atom) then this criterion could also render the manufacturing process impossible with today's technologies.
  • This might be not what you are looking for, as it is less technology than politics, but distrust could stop anything we normally would be capable of doing. If a large enough fraction of humanity would become convinced that the construction of this device would be risky, hazardous or simply require greater than acceptable sacrifices from their part, they could stop the project if the required funds and logistics make it vulnerable. Think of protesters chaining themselves in the paths of trucks, blocking the entrances of engineers working on the project, harassing support personnel until they quit, assassinating leading scientists, campaigning to politicians to stop funding the project, sabotaging necessary equipment or facilities, etc.
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ Resource scarcity was also one of my top items. It could simply require an element that is currently Unobtainium by virtue of the fact that we haven't identified it yet. Frankly, in order to transmit the Encyclopedia Galactica of technology, you would almost have to start with stone axes and give the theory and schematics of how to build everything up to what you really want them to build, in order to make sure that they've got the tools to make the tools to make the tools... $\endgroup$
    – Deacon
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 13:39
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Purity might also make this list - we are currently unable to produce 100% pure anything. $\endgroup$
    – bukwyrm
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 15:21
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromUK - Well, now, that depends on what you mean by a message. On my planet, to send a message we throw countless small, ultra-durable asteroids with the schematics engraved on their surfaces (or somewhat below to account for mass loss) in the direction of planets we want to receive our message. Whatever life survives the impact or emerges afterwards can understand the message without any advanced technology! $\endgroup$
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Jan 19, 2019 at 4:48
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @chasleyfromuk - I have to disagree. What if, at, say, the bronze age level, we missed an equally-obvious alternative, such as lightweight ceramics that could be made at that level of technology. We pursued a metal-based technology, because of the bronze age, but they pursued a ceramics-based technology because of the ceramics age. That could easily result in fundamental assumptions that would prevent us from using their designs. $\endgroup$
    – Deacon
    Commented Jan 20, 2019 at 4:28
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ time critical + resource scarcity: it requires several grams of antimatter. Sure, we can manufacture antimatter. A few atoms at a time. And we can't store it. Good luck! $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Commented Jan 22, 2019 at 7:58

You're making the assumption that we could read the schematics

I'm an electrical engineer in microelectronic design. When I compare the schematics that I create to those of a 1973 pinball machine my father owns one thing becomes incredibly obvious:

Someone only versed in the 1973 schematics would have no idea at all what they were looking at when viewing my designs.

First problem: The odds that another intelligent species used exactly the same symbols for the devices as we do are inconceivable. But, as any cryptologist will tell you, if all we have is a substitution code, it's resolvable.

Second problem: The odds that another intelligent species would build technology exactly the way we do is almost inconceivable. He humans tend to think (a) that what we understand of science today is all there is to understand and (b) that there is no other way to do it. What arrogance.

Third problem: The odds that another intelligent species hasn't come up with devices we havn't invented yet are fantastically good. In which case, we have a symbol on the proverbial page that means nothing at all to us.

Fourth problem: Fundamental schematics are massive. They don't fit on paper anymore. So you're assuming we have the ability to "open the computer file," which is dependent on both (a) the software used to view the file and (b) the hardware needed to run the software. Now we have a chicken-and-egg problem: if we need the schematic to reverse engineer the tech, where'd we get the tech in the first place? You need more than the schematic. But once you have it, why do you need the schematic?

Fifth problem: What kind of schematic are you looking at? Today, we use schematics representing many levels of abstraction. A logic diagram (NAND gates...) will tell you how advanced tech operates, but won't tell you how to build "the chip." A functional diagram will give you an even more abstracted view (CPU and memory blocks...). If you have the wrong kind of schematic, you'll stare at it forever and never figure out how to build a thing (well... it might give you ideas about how to build something using Earth tech...).

Sixth problem: Modern schematics tell you what is connected, but not how to build it. Not at all. It doesn't tell you how to dope the substrate, or how close to the substrate the gate must be, or how much encroachment you can withstand during manufacture... You don't actually know anything at all about, for example, a transistor other than it's reference name. An entire file exists (not part of the schematic) that describes the characteristics of the transistor — and even that won't tell you how to build it (well, someone educated in the art could do it, but the point is we're not educated in their art, right?). Even if you had a layout view of the transistor (indicating what regions in 3D space are affected/assembled how), you don't have enough information to build the transistor. There's a fabulous amount of mathematics behind a transistor that a simple symbol on a piece of paper simply assumes is well known — and we wouldn't know it at all. Heaven help us if their math is different than ours or has techniques we haven't discovered yet.

Seventh problem: My thanks to WillK for helping me see this. We'd be unbelievably lucky just to understand the units they use for electrical potential, charge, current, resistance, and every other unit. While we've created highly accurate means of defining these units, they're basically arbitrary — it's the relationship between the units that's mathematical. But remember, our definition of a second is arbitrary and expecting aliens to use the same definition is wishful thinking. If enough information was available on the schematic, we probably figure this one out — maybe. But it'd be a whomping headache until we did. (Think about this, "universal constants" are universal in context, but not in units. The only constants that would translate are the unitless ones: like 𝛑. Unless they use something weird like base-13 math!)

And that's just considering whether or not you can understand the schematic

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I was thinking about the recipe for Chartreuse. Supposedly after the monks obtained it, it took decades before someone was able to successfully read it much less follow it. If you look at how prescriptions were written even 100 years ago you will understand why. An alchemical formula will have loads of abbreviations, symbols, and also a lot of assumptions about the knowledge base of the reader and the materials he has available. The same with an alien formula as you set out. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 23:54
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @Willk, that's a fantastic point and it reveals something that I missed in my answer. We have a bunch of SI units (volts, amps, watts, etc.) that we humans tend to believe will be the same everywhere in the universe. They won't be. Even our definition of a second is entirely arbitrary. It may be impossible just working out the units. Thanks! I think I'll add that to the answer. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Jan 19, 2019 at 2:15
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ My first thought was P&ID's for petrochemical plants. Unless you are educated in the industry, they don't mean anything to you. Even if you are, the number of prefabricated parts whose construction is "someone else's problem" is huge. $\endgroup$
    – pojo-guy
    Commented Jan 19, 2019 at 4:09
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ The author assumes the aliens specifically want us to understand the schematics - that is, that they are broadcasted in such a way that would make sense to an unknown alien race just sufficiently advanced to be able to receive the message itself. Using binary numbers, basing units on universal constants like electron mass, including the description of all necessary technology and symbols and encoding it all in one humongous blueprint. And it's not as impossible as it may sound! Sure, the aliens might be very different, but there are still... $\endgroup$
    – DeFazer
    Commented Jan 19, 2019 at 18:32
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @DeFazer you need to study all this more. The Arecibo message is incredibly human-centric and (as mentioned in my answer) assumes that there isn't another way to do things than we, ourselves, do. To be fair, since no alien life that I know of has tried to interpret the arecibo message, we don't actually know how well we did.. but if you put that message in front of someone who hadn't seen it before and knew nothing about it, how well do you think they'd do deciphering it? And it's not a bazzillion pages long. No, I think it'll be a lot harder than we ever imagined, if it ever happens. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Jan 19, 2019 at 22:07

There are currently cases of archaeological findings (which were created by humans on earth hundreds or thousands of years ago) that we currently cannot reproduce (some of those are not very credible, others are). We can scan the artifacts, screen them with X-rays and put them under the best microscopes, but the knowledge how these artifacts were created is still lost.

We can put a large number of iron and carbon (and some additional) atoms into a pretty regular atomic matrix that makes the end product (steel) robust but flexible at the same time. But this process requires not only the right ingredients, but also repeated heating and controlled cooling of the material. If the aliens send only the list of ingredients, the material would still fail in the finished artifact.

Even if the aliens send detailled instructions, we might not be able to follow them. If the instruction says to put pure carbon atoms into a solid, cubic lattice, we know the aliens want us to create an artificial diamond. But what if the instruction says to put pure oxygen atoms into a solid, cubic lattice? We'd have extremely detailled instructions but still wouldn't know how to follow them.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ There's an answer about the tools. This one is about the process. +1 $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 15:09
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ +1, but have any examples of the un-reproduce-able ancient archaeological items? (Aside from the slightly questionable items like Indy's crystal skulls) $\endgroup$
    – Xen2050
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 22:02
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Xen2050 e.g., the Antikythera mechanism, I'm guessing. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 23:03
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Mazura That's interesting, but doesn't appear more complicated than a 14th century clock (as wikipedia says), and was reproduced by these guys and in lego $\endgroup$
    – Xen2050
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 23:20
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @Xen2050, Roman concrete is a good example. Modern unreinforced concrete is good for a few centuries; Roman concrete is good for thousands of years. Current suspicion is that the Romans got that durability by incorporating volcanic ash, but it'll take a few decades of wear testing to be sure. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Jan 19, 2019 at 23:42

Most of these are temporary impediments, not permanent

We may not have the means to produce specific compounds required in the schematics. Sure, we have the raw materials, but maybe we don't have the knowledge to combine them in the right chemical process to get the substance they need. Or perhaps we don't know how to refine the raw materials to the proper purity first. Or maybe the schematics require very specific isotopes that are difficult to get in sufficient quantities.

We may not have the ability to operate at the right scale. Sure, we can build complex electronics, but maybe their schematic details microchips at a 3 nm scale, while we're still operating at 14 nm. (or some other subcomponent.) We just don't know how to shrink our designs down enough to do what they require.

Or perhaps they call for some object that is so specific and fragile that it must be built outside of a planetary gravity well, and so we lack the infrastructure to get the raw materials and manufacturing components from Earth to a distance that's a safe distance away, with all of the shielding and other concerns that go with it.

Maybe the raw materials or finished sub-components are highly toxic to humans (but, theoretically, not to the aliens, or they have better protective gear). Maybe it requires highly reactive or highly unstable materials that are extremely dangerous to work with. Perhaps we just don't have the technology to safely build the device.

Politics may get in the way. Perhaps a key raw material can only be found in some nation that refuses to sell to this project. Or they ask for some price that's so far off the scale that the project cannot move forward (whether that's a price in currency or a price in concessions -- would we allow a despotic, genocidal, regime to dictate that they get to select half the ship's staff, for example?) Note, too, that this has a potentially high risk of introducing saboteurs into the equation, which will increase the risks, costs, and etc.

Religion may also place barriers, especially if we are talking about one or more of the Western religions and if those religions come to the consensus that the FTL drive is a threat to their believers, to their power base, or to their faith in general. Note, too, that this has a potentially high risk of introducing saboteurs into the equation, which will increase the risks, costs, and etc.

Industrial espionage or sabotage could impact the project's ability to proceed. If, for example, manufacturer X gets the bid for some component in the process (and thereby gets to patent all the related technologies that go into making it...), perhaps manufacturer Y's less-than-moral CEO decides it is better that no one have FTL than for X to beat them to market with those awesome patents...

Public opinion may prevent the project. The geopolitical mix today is struggling with human immigration, so it is entirely possible that the same part of humanity that hates "the other" in us will hate "the alien other" even more. It wouldn't be impossible for this kind of xenophobia to spiral out of control and crush this project.

Military intervention may also play a role, though this may just be a subcategory of Politics above. But if some segment of the design is obviously a threat to safety, one military or another may decide it best that no one have access to that technology. I mean, if Germany or even USSR had known the US was about to drop an atomic bomb on Japan and had details on that, don't you think they would've tried to disrupt the Manhattan Project?

Can we understand the schematics? That's not as simple as it sounds. Aliens see and think in alien ways. This matters, since even humans don't all read schematics the same way.

"The drawings were in Swedish, using metric units, and read from the first angle of projection (American practice used the third angle); the blueprints read “backwards” from American practice, and was much less precise than needed (the European practice of the time was to fix small discrepancies by hand)." (Bofor Guns of WWII)

It is therefore possible that we will have to translate the schematics into a format that makes sense to us backwoods humans. How much time and material will be wasted as we try, fail, and try again to make something before we figure out how the schematics work and the units of measure in those schematics? Sure, the aliens can send us cheat sheets to shorten this process, but they may still fall back on assumptions that are intrinsic to them that we have to fumble our way through.

So any or all of the above can present barriers to the project. Can they be surmounted? Sure. But it will take time and effort. So the delays (and the project costs...) will mount up, making the entire thing difficult at best.


The biggest impediment would be precision, specifically if it involves arranging atoms.

Watch this video on Youtube done by the first team to move individual atoms (2011) and you'll notice that although we're able to do it, we haven't been able to do it with every element - and it's far from mass manufacturing scale.

So if the technology required specific molecules to be synthesized, and it couldn't be done through a chemical process (i.e required single-atom manipulation assembly of the molecule) we would not be able to make enough of anything in a reasonable amount of time.

A second consideration is time. Many manufacturing processes today rely on non-instantaneous chemical processes (think of the whole alcohol industry, for example). Many processes can be accelerated and most industries do their best to accelerate them as much as possible but they remain non-instantaneous and can take a long time.

If the technology required a chemical process that took more than a human lifetime to complete, you could argue it would be unfeasible for humans to build it (and impossible for any individual). I don't know of such a process but this is a hypothetical question about technology and science we don't know about yet, so I'll mention the possibility.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ That's interesting. I hadn't thought about different lifetimes of species. If the aliens live for a thousand years then time would seem completely different to them. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 22:00

Politics: We cannot assemble the financial will to construct the alien tech, or we fear the consequences of the alien tech

(I do think there are interesting answers re: the pyramid of technology required to manufacture at high tolerances, or the difficulty of following instructions that we lack the science to understand. However, to avoid repeating content that others have already mostly addressed, I'm only considering the political angle...)

1: Lack of will

The lack of political will for big projects is not a new feature to the human race, and depending on the alien schematics, we might be looking at a national-scale or supernational-scale effort to build the thing. That could be a problem.

Is Europe willing to let its healthcare system suffer to build an alien macguffin? Is the USA willing to slash the military? Is China willing to risk economic collapse by redirecting govt. funds from selected industries? etc...

2: Fear

There could be active resistance to building the alien machine by framing it as dangerous... Be it the existential risk of "are we losing our culture if we develop through aid", the religious risk of "Are the aliens enemies of [religion's] sacrosanct tenets?", or the practical risks of "Are we facilitating our doom if we build the warp-gate / the nanomachine factory / unknown magic macguffin?".

It may be impossible to complete such a project if nations or activist groups are opposed to the point where they would use violence against the project.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ exactly. Reminds me of the old Bradbury story about an Emperor who found a citizen who had built a flying machine... instead of being happy he was horrified that people could fly over his walls and had the whole thing ended. Technological advancement is extraordinarily linked to social and philosophical advancement. People generally don't understand the relationship between a free society and the supply chain that it takes to create modern artefacts of civilization because so much of it is invisible to us and we don't know what things were like before. $\endgroup$
    – don bright
    Commented Jan 19, 2019 at 1:39
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Yeah, beaming out startdrive plans to alien races you've never met seems a bit foolhardy unless you can track the type of stardrive you've given them, and have a superior type of stardrive for your own use. It seems like the kind of thing you might do if the alien race is rules-lawyering around a Prime-Directive-type law. "They're successful starfarers. We can officially exploit^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hcontact them now." $\endgroup$
    – notovny
    Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 1:59
  • $\begingroup$ For "Fear" see Star Trek Voyager: Friendship One, where a friendly Probe from the Earth gives technological infos and this leads first to well-being of the alien planet, but later a accident occurs, where the planet is rendered near-uninhabitable. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 9:00
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ There are also a fair few sci-fi stories where we receive blueprints for a strange machine, build them, and they turn out to be a bomb/invasion gate/gray goo/etc. It's such a common trope, even rick & morty did it! $\endgroup$
    – Benubird
    Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 10:24
  • $\begingroup$ @notovny "and have a superior type of stardrive for your own use" - very optimistic of you, I would have thought they'd simply have a big red button marked "MAKE HUMANS GO BOOM" $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 12:17

If the Alien tech bases on theories that we cannot understand, it might be impossible to build. Or if we do not have the tools to make the tools to make the tools to make what the sent us.. after all, you wrote that they sent us the plans how to build an artefact, but not how to build the tools to build the artefact.

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ They would almost need to send an Encyclopedia Galactica of science and technology from stone axes on in order to make certain we had the tools to make the tools. $\endgroup$
    – Deacon
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 13:50
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ This is exactly it - recursion is the key - if the aliens break everything down to the last meta-tool we can build anything, but then, so could anybody, because that would be the very definition of 'last meta-tool'. Need a radiation-free Dyson Sphere around a black hole of specific weight? - Well first, you... $\endgroup$
    – bukwyrm
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 15:24

Is 2019 technology (not science) sufficiently advanced that given sufficient raw materials, we could make any conceivable human-scale artefact that the aliens specified?


It can be too expensive, it can be too dangerous, it can require materials we don't have, technologies we don't have, or we may simply not want to do it because of side effects. "Not want to do it" can range from anything to "it's obviously a bad idea" to "it's unthinkably opposed to our values".

What do we know that we don’t have/know?

1) Power. In Back to the Future they the working gadget, all they needed to do was turn it on… which required 1.21 gigawatts.

2) FTL requires metals or other resources that we don’t have the ability to make in large enough quantities. Anti-matter. Black holes (google “Black hole drive”). Elements with very high atomic numbers.

3) How to deal with Side effects. We can already make flying cars, it’s a bad idea.

3a) FTL gives an individual the ability to crack the planet if misused.

3b) FTL generates so much radiation that it can’t be generated, experimented with, or developed on the Moon, much less the Earth. The aliens just assumed we’d realize this and set it up far away, like Mars or a moon of Jupiter.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site, Dark Matter. Please note that you should answer the full question as posed by the OP, rather than the second half of it. As is, the ideas presented here do not answer the question that was asked. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 13:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre Thanks for the advice. Edited appropriately. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 13:50

What manufacturing capabilities do we know that we don't have?

Technologies That We Know We Don't Have (or are developing)

  • Genetic Engineering : our capabilities are still limited to a handful of traits at a time, with a lot of testing in-between. Genetic Engineering projects on the scale of planes, rockets, or dams are still outside of what we can do.
  • Nanotechnology : we can produce some materials at industrial scales, but our maturity with material engineering at this scale is still fairly young.
  • Nuclear : at industrial scales, we can only fission uranium and a few other products. We can not produce fusion of low-energy deuterium, and fusing neutron-free hydrogen, helium, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and heavier elements up to the iron break-even limit is way beyond our abilities at the moment.
  • Transmutation : we are aware that in laboratories and with high-energies it is possible to split or fuse atoms to create almost anything, but this future technology is in it's infancy.
  • Manned Spaceflight : we had the ability to send people to the moon, then we shifted attention somewhere else for sixty years, and now we are attempting to re-develop the technology again. However, if an alien message included "capture and bring to your world this ore-body (or prototype) we're sending to you" it would currently be outside of our power to do.
  • Deep Ocean Operations : while James Cameron can send a single sub down to Challenger Deep, and while we can drill wells from several kilometers up, our ability to operate in the deepest ocean is very limited. If the message includes "pick up further instructions, we splashed them down in your deepest ocean for the safety of your people" our capability to perform a large recovery is very weak.
  • Geography : even in the satellite age, there is a tremendous amount of our planet that is still undiscovered. If the message included retrieving mineral deposits the aliens knew existed in a specific part of Brazil, the Sahara, the Antarctic, or many other places, we would be out of luck.
  • Quantum Computing, Communication : while we can create entangled photons, transport them long distances, and reliably read the entangled probabilities, we still have not demonstrated the ability to send non-random useful information along this channel. We have not even proved unambiguously that it is possible. So, we would be in trouble if the alien schematics assumed we'd have sufficient computing power to solve any "localization calibration" that required a lot of heavy lifting computationally.
  • Inter-species Communication : we live on a world with a stupefying number of alien (non-human) species. However, we're not even entirely sure that any of them (except us) are sentient. Communication has been weak. In many cases, we're not even sure of their capabilities. If a message assumed we could leverage bats for ultra-sonic quality control of parts, or something similar, we'd have to invent a workaround.
  • Gravity : we have only just this year proven that gravity has waves. We are not even close to understanding how to apply this to communication, computing, or other infrastructure.
  • Mass : we also only very recently proved that the Higgs field is a real thing and that something previously thought immutable (mass) can actually be changed. Maybe the first implementation is James Woodward's Mach Effect reactionless drive, but we are still very new at that.

Let's say we can manufacture this machine.

You say we have the necessary materials and budget, however here are some issues that could result from it:

  1. What if the scale of the schematics, while normal for the aliens, is incorrectly sized for humans? The device itself is so small it is unusable for humans, while it would function for the aliens due to their differing size.

    We could attempt to scale up the device itself, however the the scaling causes the device to work incorrectly, and using them en masse leads to errors. Leaving us with having squandered our time and resources.

  2. Another possibility is that the device simply won't work for us due to our differing biology. Perhaps we can't dampen the forces it produces to allow to survive at those speeds, while the sturdiness (or fluidity) of their alien physiology allows them to dampen it enough to survive.

    Maybe it produces a form of radiation that the aliens are immune to (or are able to sufficiently shield), while it cooks our bodies even through protective layers and shielding.

  3. The materials on Earth are sufficiently rare so as to only be able to build one of these devices. This leads to a huge fight over which country is allowed to control the device, and maybe it being unable to be built due to irreconcilable differences between them. Even if built and a country has control of it, the fact that we can only have one means that it is of limited usefulness even when constructed.

  4. We simply don't believe or trust these aliens. Humanity tends to be skeptical be nature, while we may receive these instructions we simply have no idea on how it works or what it will do aside from their explanation. Why would they simply help us for no benefit of their own?

    Who's to say it's not really something that will open a portal for their armies from across the galaxy to invade or will generate a black hole. In this case, the countries would work together in the open to make sure it is not built until they fully understand the implications and effects of doing so, presumably while secretly conducting experiments with components of it on their own, so as to get ahead of possible competitors.

    On the upside, having the schematics will help us fuel our scientific discoveries towards the understanding of the machine allowing technology to improve much faster than it's usual rate.


It's not a schematic.

Theory of Everything

If we don't understand the science that explains how the thing works, it's because they forgot to include the mathematical formula for the Theory of Everything which is what would make FTL travel possible. Which isn't, because we still can't figure out if there's a cat in the box or not.

All those things you specifically mention are neat things for which we completely understand the physics behind, that we have undeniable ways of representing with Mathematics: the Language of the Universe. It's turtles all the way down, but the universe's Latin is math. To send it in English would be quite arrogant.

Commence Operation Handwave (or the Manhattan Project)

We get to handwave almost all of reality here:

'Completely deciphered'.

All you need now is a leader. Someone to take that money and employ whatever the world's population can spare from, e.g., food production and health services, to begin taking the materials, for whatever time it takes, to finish the project. Gimme a thumbs-up from a theoretical physicist and we're good to go.

A leader. Someone like Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces. A logistical genius who decided things like, to win the war, we'd need almost half a million trucks; non-combat vehicles. And to erect the largest edifice every yet constructed, for learning how to build and make the materials for, a device that can be described on the back of a napkin (if you understand the physics), capable of destroying entire cities.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ On the other hand, if you gave me a detailed set of instructions to build a hydraulic piston, I don't need to know that the water (or oil) is incompressible to build and operate it. I can deduce that from watching the finished product function and testing that. Likewise if the instructions were sufficient to build a working FTL drive, observing its operation would likely allow us to glean something of how it works and put that in our physics models so we can extrapolate the rest. $\endgroup$
    – Ruadhan
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 13:44
  • $\begingroup$ If the instructions were sufficient to build a working FTL drive, they would have to fill the gaps in our understanding of physics that lead us to believe in relativity. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 14:26
  • $\begingroup$ What if the uncertainty principle won't let you observe a FTL drive in action? Besides, we just get a transmission, not a light show. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 14:32
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Another factor is the simple fact of it being demonstrable. Once you know something is possible, that gives a lot more impetus to explore it. Right now the idea of finding a way to travel faster than light may be a boondoggle. Nobody knows if it's possible and lots of evidence says it's not. So with the best will in the world, there's not a lot of money backing research into doing it. If aliens popped out of hyperspace over our planet, zoomed around a bit and then jumped away again, that on its own would be evidence of FTL being possible and you'd see a lot more focus on it. $\endgroup$
    – Ruadhan
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 14:42
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The biggest handwave ever in that move where they go to the center of the earth, wasn't about getting to the core, it was the trillion dollar check they wrote him. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Jan 19, 2019 at 3:39

To build on other answers:

We may not even realise we don't have the right material, and we may not be able to work out what's wrong even if we were able to converse with the aliens.

For example, until relatively recently, we were unaware of chiral isomers, and so we produced them haphazardly, depending on the manufacturing method.

A similar thing might exist which we're unaware of – or that we are just blind to it being relevant, because it's never been important for any use we've made of a substance. The alien race might be similarly blind to it because it's just the way their materials are (e.g. all their raw material happens to be one chirality because of how it was made), so they didn't realise to specify it.

To switch the example round – If we made something with carbon, a mix of C12 and C14 would always be present on earth. We might create a device which (unbeknownst to us) relied on the ratio of C12/C14. We might not realise this is what made it work. If we then instructed aliens to make it, they might use carbon with different isotopes, because their planet's crust is different, and so the device would not work. Both of use would struggle to determine what the cause of the difference was.

Furthermore, this could be environmental factors. For example, airplanes wouldn't work on other planets (or would need to be radically redesigned) because of differences in air pressure and gravity. Other factors might affect their magic FTL drive – perhaps it only works in the gravity well of their huge planet, etc?


The answer to your question as written is ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’ (addressed by others), but here’s something which may have a big, big impact on the creation and usage of alien technology:


Imagine for a second if I went to the US government and said ‘Here are some plans for a fusion reactor. The science is beyond you, but I promise if you just follow the instructions, build it and turn it on it won’t blow up or anything. By the way, it was designed in Russia’

The response would be hilarious, and the reactor would never get built. And the Russians are the same species as us.

If your public or politicians have even the slightest xenophobic (or protectionist) tendencies then you can expect that these designs won’t ever be built, not because of any technical limitation, but because there would be unimaginable outcry if anyone tried. Not only that, but decades of ‘the aliens were using us all along’ storylines would naturally predispose us to not trust the aliens.

Then there’s the whole notion of international politics to wade into. Who gets to build the thing? If anyone objects to the thing being built by anyone but them will they drop nukes on it to stop it being built? Who will stop the crazy cults that can undo years of careful calibration and testing with a well placed suicide bomber? Will anyone refuse to sign the budget appropriation bill if the thing is/isn’t included in it? Could the thing be cancelled as ‘the previous administration’s folly’ and leave a two kilometre long tunnel under Texas?

Building this could get so bogged down in negotiations and political wrangling that the aliens give up and go talk to a less neurotic race, regardless of technological constraints.

Now I’m going to go think about something slightly less depressing.

  • $\begingroup$ I'll bet the Chinese would start work immediately. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 16:06
  • $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromUK unless they thought it might be a threat to the government, in which case it would be censored out of existence!! $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 16:08
  • $\begingroup$ You say, "the answer to your question as written is ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’" - If that is what people are answering then they are answering the wrong question. I specifically asked people, "what do we know that we don't know?". My actual words were, "What manufacturing capabilities do we know that we don't have?". It would be impossible to answer your question. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 19, 2019 at 9:52
  • $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromuk: what do we know we don’t have? We won’t know until we know we need it, but don’t have it. Therefore we don’t know what we don’t know. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Commented Jan 19, 2019 at 13:13
  • $\begingroup$ Quote: "When you don't know that you don't know, it's a lot different than when you do know that you don't know. Bill Parcells" Read more at: brainyquote.com/quotes/bill_parcells_395791 - There are four categories. (1) The things you know that you know, (2) the things that you know you don't know, (3) the things that you don't know you know and (4) the things you don't know you don't know. My question can be restated as, "What things are we certain we don't know that might stop us from building the artefact". As you can see lots of people have answered this. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 22:08

Schematics often contain summarized references to parts which were assembled by a third party. For example, the schmatic on my desk right now references an Allen Bradley PLC, and it does not include any information about what that PLC is, or how to reproduce one.

Also, schematics will generally give precise information about sizes of items, but it's impossible for people to produce items perfectly sized to those dimensions (they might be up to a mm off here or there). For that reason, people who follow the schematics often require an experiential understanding of the tolerances associated with each part. Sometimes a difference of micrometers can mean the success or failure of a project, and those tolerances are not always noted on the main schematic, but are sometimes mentioned in the purchase order for the parts, or they are just understood by people in the industry.

This rule applies to physical sizes, densities, roughness, ratios of fluids, temperatures, material conductivity, electrical resistance, and really any measurable quantity. The number of variable tolerances associated with any project can make it infeasible to note them all in the drawing, and nearly impossible to reproduce the device without knowing them.

One real-world example of this is China's long-running struggle to make a good jet engine. They've stolen entire engines, and schematics for them, and they reproduced them, but their copies just didn't work. It was because they didn't understand the tolerances, and there are a lot of parts to guess at.

  • $\begingroup$ The jet-engine example is very convincing. I suppose if the people they stole from really wanted them to succeed (like the aliens want us to succeed) then they might have done better. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 20, 2019 at 9:07

Some possible reasons:


The biggest question is how determined are we and the aliens to share and build this thing. If these are do-or-die determination there is nothing stopping us from building it.


The machine probably has 1000 or millions of parts, and each one is an opportunity for failure. One guy decides to cut corners because its Friday and s/he wants to go home, boom failure * 10000000 people involved.

Access to a fifth, sixth, or seventh dimensions is required.

Lots of other issues.

However, if the alien(s) are prepared enough even these things won't stop us. Here's how.

  1. They send us instructions how to build 300 generations of replicator from 3d printer up to the latest and greatest 9th dimension model. So generation 1, builds a gen 2 device and so on and so on to gen 300. Within a couple generations we will build nothing.

    Additional each generation is less our technology and more theirs. Generation 1 has to be 100% human made. Then gen 2 will be 99.666% human made and so forth and so on till all the parts are printed by 100% alien to us technology.

We will feed in any RAW materials and the device will e=mc^2 matter. That is convert all matter placed in the input bin to energy and then back to new matter. So now all we have to do is pour a constant supply of stuff in the input bin. So we connect our sewer system to it, and boom constant supply of raw materials. And all of our trash into the input bin.

Then its starts spitting out parts, and we just lego them together. Eventually with each generation they will be able to print larger and larger objects.

So now at generation 300 the machine is large enough to 3d print the whole unit FTL engine without any intervention from us. Aside from pouring in the raw materials.

Of course we could make mistakes in producing the initial units, however the aliens have though of that. The machine contains (much more advanced versions) of parity data, and error correction. It detects and corrects errors, say part 129 is off tolerance by 0.001mm, the replicator prints a new piece and us humans know the old piece is bad because the duplicate piece is there. We swap out the piece, and production continues.

Yes, generation 300 can print in 12 dimension or more so we have that covered.

Say we can't access dimension 10+ for some reason.

The aliens guessed that might happen, and they have included blue prints for every conceivable combination of dimension including just our 4.

The aliens could have planned for 10 billion contingencies therefore virtually guaranteeing we can produce whatever it is.

Machine produces harmful radiation during product, aliens thought of that and the device generates star trek or better force fields and contains the radiation or other harm field(s) and potentially converts it back to energy recycling back to a harmless state.

They don't know what is harmful to us. Thought of that, it includes a scanner to scan humans and figures out what is harmful to us, and protects us from it automatically.

Yet if we encounter contingency 10 billion and 1 it might all be for naught.

Yet, the aliens thought of that to. The machine opens a micro-wormhole and downloads updates from alien HQ. Reports on the things it didn't expect, and the aliens upload the necessary fixes contingencies. Note the original transmission is one way, but include a list of 5000+ galactic coordinates. 0 by 0 by 0 by 1, 10 by 1 by 10 by 1, .... The computer opens a micro wormhole to each coordinate and attempts to download updates from there. -----Real example---- --hd radio meta data


CopyrightNotice="Copyright © 2014 iHeartMedia, Inc. All rights reserved."

I have replaced the real data with fake and ### the coordinates. My radio has one way communication with my radio station, but I still know exactly where they are located.

Humans might get board or just stop building it.

Yup, the device is now printing androids the work can continue day and night until completion.

Need some extra power...print advanced solar panels that absorb light in all spectrum's, way more efficient and power. Have the android place them if needed.

  • $\begingroup$ In my original thoughts the aliens were simply broadcasting generally to anyone in the universe who was advanced enough to hear them so there would be no back and forth. As I didn't make that clear I won't change it now so your answer is still valid. Your points are very good so +1. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 20:40
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromUK Yes, the aliens are broadcasting generally, but part of that broadcast is data on a machine that opens are wormhole, just big enough for communication to download updates and etc. It does NOT have to be for the 2 races to talk to each other. It would be no different than google chrome, when launched it automatically checks for a new version of the software and downloads it. $\endgroup$
    – cybernard
    Commented Jan 19, 2019 at 1:58

Many good answers have been posted regarding communication barriers, organizational problems, resource scarcity and current manufacturing capabilities.

Let's suppose we had infinite time, infinite resources, no conflicts, the entire alien "tech tree" and perfect communication. Even in those conditions there may simply be hard limits in mind and body to what humans can achieve.

Some ways in which we have encountered limits to our minds:

  • Gödel's incompleteness theorems identifies limits to human reasoning (in math). In short: some things are true but cannot be proven.
  • It is up for debate whether math is "real" or merely a product of our collective imagination. A set of axioms cannot prove itself.
  • The Chomsky hierarchy ends at regular grammars, but perhaps aliens can conceive even more complex grammars to solve more complex problems.

In regards to the body, the aliens might be too different from us.

  • They might be 4+ dimensional beings.
  • Supposing the universe branches with every decision made, they might be existences that span multiple branches and can collapse themselves into those they like.
  • Their composition might be too different from ours, so that certain procedures that work on them do not work on us. For instance, our genetic engineering is not going to work on life-forms that are not carbon-based.
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Yes, the non- or diferent-, DNA basis could be a problem. We might be killed by the technology because it has some biological effect we can't tolerate or maybe it is a bio-machine and we simply can't manufacture their version of 'DNA'. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 20, 2019 at 9:04

Many industrial manufacturing processes are inherently risky and produce wastes that need special handling. Even today people still get killed in foundries, or poisoned by fumes and we've been messing around with liquid metals for a few millennia now.

What if the alien manufacturing techniques required something truly nasty, or the waste product makes the insides of old nuclear reactors or chemical plants an ecological haven by comparison?

The second half of "Pushing Ice" by Alistair Reynolds may provide some thought. And of course, that means you'd have to read the first half as well so it makes sense. Which is an excellent way to spend a lazy Sunday. :-)


Until 2017, Chinese companies were unable to manufacture the tips of ballpoint pens.

Source e.g. here.

It wasn't for not knowing the schematics, they simply did not have a process that was precise enough to create ballpoint pen tips.

We simply may not know what the process could be.

In semiconductor chip production, we have managed to get to smaller and smaller scales, from a 10 µm process in 1970 for chips like the 8008, to somewhere between 7 and 5nm in 2019 (Wikipedia). This is close to the theoretical limit, so I don't think alien semiconductors would become much smaller.

But it's all flat chips, we print them on large wafers that are then cut into pieces for the individual chips. If we found the schematics for a fully 3D block of semiconductors with connections equally in horizontal and vertical directions, we'd simply have no idea of how to create something like that.

Let alone if they weren't aligned in a 3D grid, but directions moved freely in all directions.

  • $\begingroup$ Not necessarily true -- today's µ-processors commonly use 40+ layers of semiconductor components, topped by 20+ layers of 'wire' interconnects. There has also been development in going '3D' with onboard memory. The largest problems are around heat dissipation and yield. With a new concept for the substrate and more accurate 'process', it's not unthinkable we could begin work on that tech. We certainly do have an idea how to create it, we are just currently limited by technology & process. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 18:00

Industrial technology is not the process of inventing new things.

Industrial technology is the process of getting better at building things, then putting those things together in new ways.

A fully specified modern weapon won't do anything without modern precision quality metals and chemicals. That process, of making more and more precise ingredients, is driven by increasing demand for them, and valuing more precise chemicals and materials for prior needs.

For example, the exact carbon quality of a particular steel might not be needed for a specific device, but it can mean you can cut tolerances on something as mundane as a kitchen sink; the strength of the steel and its corrosion resistance etc is known, so we can cut the sink's thickness by 20% and still get a reliable product.

Advanced alien technology may require simply insane precision in the materials used.

Imagine the specifications for a specific material involve describing the exact location and isotope of every atom in a particular metal strut.

As to why that might matter, that metal strut might have the ability to respond to environmental conditions and do things. It could have computation embedded in it, or even the ability to modify its stiffness or expand/contract in response to the needs of the rest of the device. It could even be an active component involved in modulating the magnetic field generated as part of the device's operation.

A less fantastical example of this would be the manufacturing efforts we had to go through to build the stellarator. It has to be a twisted shape that carefully prevents high energy atoms from escaping; at the same time, it has to have ports that let things be added into or removed from the plasma.

For this to work, the entire thing had to be crafted using modern computer aided design and manufacturing; the precision of the parts involved is too high for human hands.

The Stellarator was designed a while ago. Only modern computer simulation and manufacturing gave us the ability to actually work out the quirks and actually build it. Given perfect plans for it in the 1980s, we couldn't build it because we lacked the computer aided manufacturing capabilities. Well, maybe we could build one; but now imagine a device that requires a few million of them.

Today, if the aliens sent us the specs for a device that required the equivalent of a few million Stellarators, we would have a shot. In the 1980s, no chance at all; we'd have to invent new industries to even get close.

Another example would be a space elevator. All you need is carbon nanotube wire. (Well, not all you need). We can make carbon nanotube wire, but we cannot make 100s of km of wire, nor can we wind it together into the cables required.

An alien might expect or know this. So the proper way for the alien to pull this off is to provide an entire set of instructions on how to build entire new industries, together with produces that each industrial revolution can produce that we might find useful (so we don't bankrupt our civilization trying to follow the path). You could imagine step 1 being "become a K-type 1.5 civilization", with a century-long path to building a space-based civilization that absorbs a significatn portion of the sun's energy. From that base, they might describe how to build orbital supercolliders that permit the synthesis of stable post-trans-uranic elements in small quantities, which in turn become the basis for a new industrial revolution.

Asking us to just build that supercollider with current technology would bankrupt our energy budget, as it might require more energy than we have available. So the first step -- get richer -- is just an ingredient on the way to designing the thing they want us to build.

Of course, with such a "Ikea instruction manual" to uplifting our own civilization, you could see a significant change in how humans approach science and technology. Would the aliens take this into account, and leave gaps for us to fill in ourselves? Or would accidental gaps be more than enough?

Speaking of which, Ikea instruction manuals are the best another human corporation can do in telling people how to put things together, and they even get to supply the parts; a completely alien intelligence trying to tell us how to build something larger in scale than our entire civilization is currently (the new industrial civilization required to build the parts to build the thing) would probably be even harder to follow. Human experts on "following the instructions" would develop.



That is the only thing that can truly and ultimately stop our progress. Until we exist, we can advance. We did so for as long as we have existed, and there is no reason why we should stop. Eventually, we will reach whatever technology exists anywhere else in this Universe.

Now, provided that the chance of Earth being hit by a random zig-zagging rock of adequate size is non-zero over the time-scale of the Universe, or that the Universe may collapse draggin us with it, or that we may trigger our own destruction (as we sometimes try to), the answer to the other question "Ok, but will we always be able to...?" is



There is an old saying, "The map is not the territory".

There are technologies we still have not recovered from ancient times such as:

Roman concrete

Damascus steel

Greek Fire

In order to manufacture the technology, we would need in addition to the schematics:

  1. Methodology required to manufacture the components
  2. The tools to manufacture the components
  3. The materials to manufacture the components
  4. Any infrastructure to support it

Take how computers have advanced from the 1950s to today. Even if we had had the specs to manufacture an iphone today, we wouldn't have the schematics to create the microchips required, the technology to manufacture the plastics and resins we do now, the precision assembly robotics to assemble the components or to mark the circuits.... et cetera. Then even if by some miracle, they pulled it off, they still wouldn't have the code to run it, the network of cell towers to support it, or any way to know those were needed.

There are actually MANY obstacles, as you can see.

  • $\begingroup$ True but if the Romans etc. had left us detailed instructions (as the aliens have) then presumably we would be able to do what they did. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 21:36
  • $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromUK perhaps, but even if Thomas Edison had gotten hold of the schematics for a cell phone, he wouldn't have been able to build one, or the network required to build one. $\endgroup$
    – user20762
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 21:43
  • $\begingroup$ @chaslyfromUK thanks for the comment though, it helped me think out more detail. $\endgroup$
    – user20762
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 21:45
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, but for aliens to even contact Thomas Edison he would have had to have a radio telescope. By definition the aliens can only pass on the secret to people who have enough technology to receive the message. Therefore they can assume that anyone who hears them has already reached a suitable level. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 22:04

It depends...

Do we have the schematics for the tech or do we have the schematics for all of the steps of technological development that lead up to the development of THAT technology?

If we only have the schematics for the Chappa'ai, but we don't have the schematics for the crystal control panel technology, the Naquadah mining technology, the Naquadah refinement technology, and all the other things that lead to the building of a Chappa'ai, then what good does it do for us to have the schematics to a Chappa'ai? The creation of technology isn't reliant only on knowing what is needed to make it, but on also knowing all the steps necessary to get to that point. Leonardo di'Vinci couldn't make a functional airplane, but he understood the idea behind it and made a schematic for what would later be an inspiration in future endeavors. He saw the modern era long before it was even an idea to most people. The problem is, it's easy to say "We need a specific material made in a specific process put in a specific arrangement," but it is much harder to say "This is how we make that material, perform this process, and get it to fill this arrangement." They say our technology is evolving rapidly, but it really is still just a crawl. It's our perspective that makes us feel like it is faster than it really is. Without all of the relevant schematics explaining how we get from where we are to all the way to where that alien technology is, then we can't hope to build that technology until we have finished remaking the wheel over and over and over again.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .