My question was raised by this post.

Aliens crash-land at the Boston Airport (ie, in the United States). [...] The potential benefits of being able to reverse-engineer their tech alone is enough to propel the US to a new level of technology.

This happened in the early 21st century. After some years, the US have extracted enough knowledge from the spaceship and its passengers to create a huge technological gap between them and the rest of the world. Assume (if that makes any sense) that this gap is similar to the difference between WW2 and 2000's techs.

I guess that all this knowledge will leak at some point (intelligence services, private companies, bribes, retro-engineering of latest American devices...). So the question is,

How long before all other (developed) countries get to the same level of technology?

If you have to address the resulting political transformations too much, then this question may be too broad...

We can also assume that a part of this technology will be classified and only available to the army, and that the US will use their advanced weapons in conflicts. But since other countries still have "regular" nukes, the US cannot get into a world war with impunity neither.

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    $\begingroup$ Are those technologies going to be fully classified and available only to the military, or available to the general public? $\endgroup$ – Alexander Apr 23 at 18:14
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    $\begingroup$ I think a big issue with the question is the state of the world when this happens. From what I understand the US already has Military Tech that far surpasses what anyone else has on the planet, and we are pretty good at keeping all that under wraps. Maybe the US would end up doing what we have done in the past (give military technology to a developing country who will fight our enemies for us), and then end up with those weapons pointed towards us. $\endgroup$ – Alex Apr 23 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ "We have an awesome new tech that lets us leap ahead of our enemies, and everyone else runs around trying to steal/replicate/counter it. Then they manage to do so but by then we have come up with something else!" This is basically half the running plot in most of David Weber's multi-book series. The Honorverse and Safehold books are a fun read if you want a good example of politics and tech wars done right. Warning though, his books tend to be on the massive side (probably because of all the politics and tech wars!) $\endgroup$ – MarielS Apr 23 at 22:04
  • $\begingroup$ Depends upon the technology, and how badly somebody wants it. Wakanda ruthlessly guarded it's (secret) advantage in Vibranium-based tech for thousands of years. The USA lost it's spectacular atomic advantage to spies in less than five years. There is no curve to be drawn, so it seems a matter of opinion and speculation...which seems to make this question story-based or opinion-based. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Apr 23 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ An important point that needs to be addressed before a proper answer could be made: Is the US willing to use advanced military means to protect their advantage? - German production of, well, anything, wouldn't have gotten very far if every factory at the start of WWII had been targeted with a tomahawk... And research into new technology would not have gotten anywhere very quickly. $\endgroup$ – TheLuckless Apr 23 at 22:27

If by "the US", you mean the general population, you're out of luck

It's (probably) feasible to keep certain findings secret if you stash them in a safe, bury that in concrete and tell no one about it. The hard part is making use of your knowledge without giving it away. In an age of more-or-less free travel and wireless, anonymous data transfer, anything you sell, mass produce or make accessible to regular citizens will spread almost instantly, no matter how jealously you guard it. If you were able to reverse engineer the alien tech in the first place, others will be able to figure out your adaptation of it with far less effort.

Science is a global effort

A big part of technological progress is knowing what's possible, and in which direction you should focus your efforts. Going back in time 50 years with just a list of "lessons learned", no details, would be huge. This, again, is not something you can keep secret from the rest of the world very easily. If they know you have it, half of your advantage is already gone.

Of course, the devil's in the details, and someone has to do the actual work of figuring them out. Contrary to popular fiction, this is usually not done by a lone genius in a basement somewhere, it's the result of a lot of moderately smart people making incremental progesss and "comparing notes". Militaries are sometimes able to build on top of that (or rather, private companies do and then sell the results to one or more militaries), but they're never too far ahead of the curve.

What this means for reverse engineering your alien tech is that the speed at which you'll unlock it is inversely proportional to your secrecy. Every researcher you give access to this project is a potential leak, as is whoever supplies their resources. And once there is a leak, your small research team has to compete with the rest of the world.

Testing weapons is probably fine, waging war is risky

The US are already known for building and test firing lots of prototype weapons that, while the underlying tech is common knowledge, haven't been implemented at that scale anywhere else. Assuming they'd gain enough of a technological edge to make these weapons actually superior to established alternatives, there would be a number ways to profit:

  • Intimidation: The US and NATO are already a major military power, so, bragging rights aside, the new weapons wouldn't really allow them do do anything they could not do before. That being said, misinformation about what your new tech can actually do might give you an edge in negotiations.
  • Intelligence: If you keep it secret, you can use the advanced tech to spy on your enemies and wage a (dis)information war. They'll eventually figure out that you have some kind of unfair advantage, but without access to your facilities, there's not much they can do to properly analyze or replicate it unless they beat you at your own game.
  • War: Large scale production of even a conventional new weapon is ridiculously expensive. Even more so for your alien tech. The effort of modernizing your entire military in a limited timeframe will only pay off if you fight, and win, a big war. Assets will get lost, and the rest of the world will be highly motivated to steal or reverse engineer your tech, so you quickly trade that technological advantage for a more dominant position on the globe. If you can somehow prevent other superpowers from retaliating with nukes etc.

In conclusion, the more use you get out of the tech, the faster it'll spread. If your goal is to maintain technological superiority, your best bet is to use it sparingly, e.g. for syping on other powers.


I think the best way to look at this is by seeing how long it took China to catch up to the USA's technology. 20-30 years ago, the average level of technology in China was 50-100 years outdated by Western Standards, now they have pretty comparable technologies in most areas of life; so, if you are beginning your narrative from any time period before 2000, that would be a reasonable time frame.

That said, we live in an age of hacking and surveillance where national secretes are much harder to keep than they once were. It only takes one researcher opening a bad email for someone else to gain access to an entire office building worth of research. I would not be surprised if half a dozen countries had at least some of what the USA discovered from the wreck, before they are even ready to go into production with it.

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    $\begingroup$ "average level of technology" that is in use by citizens. China had nukes as of 1964. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Apr 24 at 2:02
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, "average". Their nuclear program and their military in general was only 20 years behind, but their civil, medical, information, industrial, and logistics technology were all much more outdated until they started to make a major push toward modernizating their economy in 1990s. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Apr 24 at 2:50
  • $\begingroup$ However, no one seriously tried to keep them behind! With enough political motivation this timeframe can be at least doubled $\endgroup$ – Hobbamok Apr 24 at 9:12
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    $\begingroup$ They were behind in “most areas of life”, while their factories were producing all the advanced items used by western people in “most areas of life”. The fact that the average worker couldn’t afford all these gadgets had little to do with knowledge. They caught up due to the money that was floating in. Trying to avoid knowledge from leaking would require isolated factories right in the US, owned by the government or US citizens. A funny idea in a globalized world. Such self-isolation would cause more havoc than the technological advantage could ever compensate. $\endgroup$ – Holger Apr 24 at 11:23
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    $\begingroup$ Now, they have advanced modern factories, but I'm talking early '90s China. Back then, they were mostly just making toys, dishes, simple appliances, and other things that could be done with other country's hand-me-down manufacturing equipment. They did not get to be a hub for outsourcing by having the best factories, they got that way by replacing other countries infrastructure that relied on things that could be done with early 1900's technology. They had cheap labor and cheap equipment, and they made the most of it. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Apr 24 at 14:59

Skipping a bunch of me complaining about the complexities behind this, the answer is something in the frame of "they can keep their edge almost indefinitely if it gives them enough of an economic advantage". Short version if it costs too much to retool for the new technology it won't be adopted if the US is far enough ahead that other nations can't afford it. Look at the gap that developed between the US and USSR after the space race. It wasn't until relatively recently that Russia was able to catch up in the computer sciences through access to cheap components produced by outsourced offshore vendors in sympathetic countries.

This does assume an initial manufacturing monopoly, if they outsource production they'll lose almost immediately.

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    $\begingroup$ Russia was delayed as you say because their nation fell into anarchy and economic ruin, but this question is about other developed countries. In this same time frame, other economically healthy countries such as England, Japan, etc. didn't particularly fall behind. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Apr 23 at 18:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki No because they benefited from in the case of Britain and the European nations information sharing agreements and in the case of Japan early production outsourcing. $\endgroup$ – Ash Apr 23 at 18:54
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    $\begingroup$ The problem with this theory is that it is cheaper to only invest in technologies that are already proven, even if you can't steal the exact designs. Here, the USA would get a strong lead, but every new piece of tech they invest in would be a complete shot in the dark once they are done exploring the alien tech, this would result in a dramatic slowdown for new improvements in the USA. In contrast, other countries would see what the USA is doing and be able to focus research on things that they know can be done resulting in better returns. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Apr 23 at 21:48
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    $\begingroup$ Also, when you are in the lead, you are the most affected by inflation. Inflation encourages outsourcing, and outsourcing also makes it easier to pirate your tech. So yes, information sharing with other economically healthy countries caused a lot of american technology to propagate faster, but the catch-up was always inevitable. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Apr 23 at 21:48
  • $\begingroup$ Forever. Highly unlikely, but forever, +1 $\endgroup$ – Mazura Apr 24 at 2:03

I don't think there will be any appreciable delay at all. There are to many variables at play to answer precisely (and I assume the question will be marked as opinion based soon). But my overall line of reasoning goes like this - in this scenario the US doesn't have much head start over other nations, they do not have the infrastructure in place to produce alien technology devices at once. In short, the more secrecy there is around the alien technology, the slower the rate of adoption in the US itself, so the nation gets less benefit from it's new technology. The less secrecy, the faster it spreads. The best use of this technological superiority, IMO, would be not trying to conceal it, but to patent it - but then you will have it produced in China and used globally the next morning (although US would profit economically the most, I guess).

UPD: the main point I see here is that initially US itself is in the position of a developing nation - they have reverse engineered alien blueprints and no manufacturing base to produce them. To use this technology, US would need to invest into overhauling its manufacturing base first. So, using this alien technology will get expensive before it gets profitable. And in order for it to get profitable you need to actually sell it, and other countries to buy it. So in this 'peaceful' scenario the whole world gets technology, though US profits.

If the technologies are going to be used only for military, US is going to have problems with its NATO allies unless it shares. I do not think there are many pieces of technology your would want to go to war with the whole world. And barring some comic-book superweapon, most military technologies take decades to integrate and implement.

The only way some alien technology can assure swift and decisive technological and military dominance is the case where it is its own manufacturing base - something like self-replicating nano-robots. And that is not 50 years worth of technological difference, it's magical philosophers stone for all intents and purposes.

  • $\begingroup$ If you compare the Alien tech to that of nuclear warheads in the cold war, there would be a substantial delay. The US and Russia at the time were the only countries with the resources to develop and experiment with those weapons and the world watched as we almost killed each other. Today more countries have nuclear weapons, but majority still have none. $\endgroup$ – Alex Apr 23 at 19:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Alex just possessing an alien nuke doesn't give you 'technological edge' over all other countries. Especially if you had usual human nukes to begin with. It's a deterrent and scare weapon, not a backbone of industry. $\endgroup$ – Cumehtar Apr 23 at 20:15
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    $\begingroup$ I believe his point is not what a nuke can be used for, but the resources that go into making a nuclear industry. It takes very precisely milled manufactured equipment and rare elements that many counties could not provide themselves with even if they wanted to. That said, a nuke is also sort of a bad example because there is so much political pushback when a smaller country tries to invest in it. If the technology was less dangerous but equally expensive and revolutionary (such as computers), then a natural spread will happen faster. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Apr 23 at 21:58
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    $\begingroup$ Years ago a map was produced that categorized countries in the world into those that openly had nuclear weapons--this was before North Korea finally finished theirs--namely the US, USSR/Russia, UK, France, China, India, Pakistan; countries that had nuclear weapons secretly (Israel, South Africa); and countries with known or suspected nuclear programs. But there was another category: countries that had no nukes, had no nuclear weapon program, but could, if they really wanted to, produce basic weapons; Canada, Sweden, Japan, Germany, Brazil, and some others. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Apr 24 at 14:46

Best case: Egypt got the wheel about 1,000 years after Mesopotamia. Similarly, China managed to delay European competition in porcelain and silk by centuries. Both of these gaps were before the existence of aircraft and electronic communications.

Worst case: The U.S. allowed Soviet spies to get key information from the Manhattan Project, so the U.S.S.R was only about 5 years behind in the nuclear race.

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    $\begingroup$ ... and China was only 14y behind Russia. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Apr 24 at 2:07

Not very long after it gets used.

There are basically two parts to technological progress. First, the actual ideas and concepts. Second, the enabling factors that allow you to actually execute on the ideas in practice.

Reverse engineering alien technology will only give you new ideas and concepts. It will not change the enabling factors. As such the technological edge gained from this would entirely be based on new ideas and concepts. Which your competition could easily reverse engineer as soon as you start using them. Or that can be copied thru espionage as soon as the competition gets aware of them.


That said in the early 2000s, the China still had not caught up economically to the extent it now has, so the US and its allies would have been in much better position to actually use the new technology. If the technology really was revolutionary this would have created an economic boom within the US, Canada, western Europe, Japan, and so on. China, India, Russia, and so on would not have been in the position to capitalize on this boom.

The increased resources from the economic boom in turn would have enabled the affected countries to apply the alien technology to even greater extent. Which would have resulted in even further geographically limited growth.

The question implies that the UFO contained few decades worth of technological progress. If we assume decades of accelerated growth and then corresponding decades of effort by non-boosted countries to catch up, it adds up to "less than a century" of technological edge.

But lots of things change within a century. For example both China and Russia would almost certainly change their political course significantly if "catching up" would suddenly become that much harder. They'd seek to share the spoils by becoming closer to "the west". And if "the west" responded to these promising signs by opening up their technology, which happened with China, it would make catching up easier. Which would turn policies back to being more assertive... And so on. It generally is not useful to speculate beyond few decades.

And also...

You only mention reverse engineering but we can additionally assume that the UFO might contain limited amounts of resources we cannot replicate. Alien alloys, "magic" crystals, working devices we cannot reverse engineer fully.

This might give the US a unique "secret weapon" style edge that cannot be copied or caught up to in the foreseeable future.

Using this is probably a bad idea since you would essentially be saying that "the US is superior because I say so" but limited amounts of this would be realistic and even large amounts can work IF it is part of the premise of the story. David Weber's Safehold books do this as do lots and lots of alternate world stories. So it can be made to work. And giving your people a super secret cool toy or two might be fun.

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    $\begingroup$ Minor but important note: In Safehold, with the exception of the SNARCs, there isn't any special, hard to reproduce technology: the key there is that Merlin has just almost a thousand years worth of records of how to do things, so Charis can keep introducing new technologies rapidly enough to stay well ahead of their opponents. And even then, there are a few times where their opponents get an idea fast enough that Charis has issues (e.g. with rockets). $\endgroup$ – JoshuaZ Apr 24 at 16:40
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    $\begingroup$ @JoshuaZ They have PICAs that are bulletproof and can kill dragons or krakens with a single strike, stealthed assault shuttles for supersonic transport, invisible surveillance systems that tell them what their enemies do in real time, computer systems with sentient AI to keep track of all that surveillance, nanites to keep people healthy (or "magically" kill inquisitors), brain implants, bulletproof body armor, global communications network... $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Apr 24 at 17:24
  • $\begingroup$ ok fair points. The surveillance with the SNARCS was the main one I was thinking about. But yes, there are definitely others. $\endgroup$ – JoshuaZ Apr 25 at 18:15

Possibly for surprisingly long (centuries), but there is a twist to get there

With the discussion concerning time of a released technology to be stolen or copied I fully agree. This indeed tend to be a short time.

But there is a trick. Would all tech be released on the day 1? I don't mean even usual procedure in all respective conspiracy theories of gov suppressing some live saving tech. There is more serious issue, whether one can actually understand not mentioning implement some technologies. Let's say someone gave Renaissance era people blueprints for stealth bomber and graphic cards factory. While Leonardo da Vinci may be delighted, it would be a bit tricky to actually make this stuff working. Under best case scenario it would require tedious making step by step each moves. Moreover, unless the donor really plans everything in advance, the user may stumble on such issues like "What the hell is electricity???" and actually have to fill some gaps with his own research.

So assuming that the power:

  • perfectly guards its treasure trove
  • slowly releases its new discoveries every few years

it may indeed keep tech edge for really long time.


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