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So, there is this entity in my story, Slenderman, who's ultimate technique is the Blackout.

Blackout causes electronic devices and light-based communication to fail within a 5 km radius of a chosen point. In layman terms, it makes everything foggy (that fog are the machines themselves), pitch black and also gradually deteriorates electric components like transistors and batteries. The thing is, Slendy can't use this insanely powerful ability for anything else.

It's strange. The micro machines (50-100 micrometers), he uses, can do different things when ordered to, yet the constituent bots of Blackout can't do anything besides chewing telephone cables and being impenetrable to a wide spectrum of light.

How can I explain the Blackout bots' inability to do anything besides what's in the ability's description, in particular, its inability to be wielded offensively against organic lifeforms?

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I would guess that Slenderman came across his swarm-controlling capabilities but was not the author of the original micromachine design.

The micromachines do accept orders, but they also run an operating system of their own and, when in sufficient number (a few thousands), they have the ability of distinguishing between organic lifeforms and everything else. At that point, a safety measure designed to avoid a "gray goo" scenario kicks in, and the swarm simply refuses to do some things.

How to build "can't do anything besides chewing telephone cables and being (opaque)" into "gradually deteriorates electric components like transistors and batteries": very easy. The micromachines can drill into insulation and copper wires and are conductive, so they create lots and lots of small short circuits, which gradually (or not so gradually if you want) deteriorate any electric component.

Another reason the machines cannot harm living beings is that they only react to, or even require for high-energy "damaging" operations, an electric current very close by. This last would mean they could not damage an unpowered, isolated electric device though; and/or there could be some kind of currents (high frequency, or to the opposite end, direct current; or very low intensity currents; or ionic fluxes) to which they would not react.

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I think this sounds like the μmachines are more akin to bacteria or paramecium. Slenderman can release and recall them through some means, but that is about it. After that the μmachines act on their equivalent to stimulus-response.

They absorb visible light for energy. And they attack batteries, solid-state components, and plastic-wrapped copper wires (telephone cables) for any one or more of the following reasons.

  • these items contain nutrients that the μmachines need to reproduce
  • these items attract them as the light of candles beckons to moths, except the μmachines attack them when they encounter them instead of getting burned up.
  • these items irritate the μmachines, compelling them to chew them up like piranha on a cow
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This is basically how to avoid gray goo with nanomachines. The answer is they are not individually self replicating. There is a central portable factory (which itself could be quite small) where the nano machines are made, a queen and hive type set up. You could have many even hundreds of "queens" but the point is these queens or hives are not self replicating they only make workers, the workers bring them raw material to make new workers. Since there is no self replication there is no chance for evolution. thus they will only ever do what they were originally programmed to do.

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I watched a documentary once about a type of ant that craws up your leg in a big swarm, not a single one biting you until one at the top suddenly releases a chemical signal to attack. You wouldn't notice a thing until your whole leg exploded in pain.

Your nanomachines could function in a similar way, however, they use the electrical conductivity of the object they're attacking as the conduit of their communication. So if they're attacking a phone line, nothing will happen until one of the machines sends an attack signal through the wire. The man standing under it won't be affected, but the metal buttons on his coat might (depending on if it is conductive or not)

Machines this size are usually not large enough to have an antenna large enough to receive radio signals, which is why they have to communicate through local material. You may need some hand waving around how the main entity communicates with the swarm.

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