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Millions of years ago, friendly aliens set up an automated process to help out other civilizations. This is a robotic help center that sends out gift packages (in the forms of large ships) that hunt out civilizations, land, and give them a boost of some sort of technology. This could be anything from a boost to get into space, to genetic enhancements/fixes, to a new energy source.

So my question is: what kind of tech could they give us that would accidentally cause a world-wide apocalypse if delivered to humanity in 2015, due to cultural/racial differences?

Assume we're using it as intended and as instructed, and that it works as intended. So:

  1. It's not an AI that's gone bad, or corrupted instructions.
  2. It's not a "humans are dumb" result. They didn't give us antimatter and terrorists use it to destroy the planet.
  3. Exception: It could result from a miscommunication due to cultural/racial differences, as long as pretty much all of humanity understands it the same way and it's not "we're not smart enough to understand it".

Since this question is so perilously close to "too broad" and "idea generation" that Sir Galahad would run at it at top speed, I'll add the following restrictions as well:

  1. Answers will be judged on how innocent the tech appears, as long as the apocalypse seems reasonable. So for example, a new toaster that destroys the world beats a new energy source, since energy sources are generally dangerous.
  2. Apocalypse is defined as something that kills 50% or more of the world's human population within 10 years. For the purposes of this question, turning us into robots or sticking us in virtual reality doesn't count as killing.
  3. It's either applied automatically when it lands, or every nation on earth is delivered a working example and the educational material to operate it and build more units.
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    $\begingroup$ Darn. I was going on and on about some crazy preemptive sickness prevention device that was used wrong and then i read "used as intended and as instructed". $\endgroup$ – Aify Jun 4 '15 at 21:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Aify: Actually I like that a lot, as long as it's an honest misunderstanding (it's not just like 1 guy who misreads something), due to a significant difference, I think that would work. I edited it to put in an exception for that. $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Jun 4 '15 at 21:50
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    $\begingroup$ Is a cultural/racial difference between the aliens + the humans considered okay? $\endgroup$ – Aify Jun 4 '15 at 22:05
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    $\begingroup$ Clarification: Do you see the aliens as giving us an actual technology or just the end products or results of the technology? EG, in the past, traders from the industrialized world traded guns and ammo to hunter-gather peoples. The H-G did not have firearms technology, but merely the results of that tech. The real tech is the know-how and organizational systems needed to invent, manufacture, distribute, maintain and train users in firearms. All the HG have is individual instances. Once they're out of ammo or the firearms breaks, they can do nothing about it. $\endgroup$ – TechZen Jun 6 '15 at 1:05
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    $\begingroup$ Pedantic note on the title: benign apocalypse is contradictory. Benign is defined as something that is harmless, but apocalypse is basically the ultimate harm. I think benevolent would work better. $\endgroup$ – Shaz Jun 8 '15 at 17:39

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The aliens could launch us a preemptive sickness prevention device that is designed to cure diseases.

This machine was automatically applied after arrival, and how it works is that it releases nanomachines that detect differences in the population and terminates those that it deems contagious. The ship that arrives at our planet does a scan of the human population, and determines that a lot of the world is sick.

Let us begin with the assumption that of the worlds population, at least one particular skin tone is of some sort of majority. These aliens come from a place where skin is 90% the same.

These nanomachines see "Oh, theres another person that doesn't have the right skin pigmentation". They do a diagnosis and see that "Hey, if this guy reproduces, this pigmentation will spread!" (eg: diagnosis result - contagious). It proceeds to kill off the target.

Within the first month, a large chunk of the human population is dead. Furthermore, the human population is likely to suffer in the future since genetic diversity has all of a jumped off a cliff.

Edit: Alternatively, the nanomachines may kill anyone with a small sickness like the common cold or the flu. As Kevin so kindly pointed out, there are lots of people that are sick at any given time on the world, and with contagious diseases. It could also target STDs.

Edit 2: Hats off to Peteris for this one - if the aliens multipied via eggs/spores/etc, the machines might in fact detect pregnancy as a parasitic infection - all of a sudden, the world no longer has any more children. Everyone dies out.

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    $\begingroup$ This is interesting, but it doesn't seem to cover the idea that humans intentionally use the device. It also requires the aliens to be as far out of their depth as the humans, since the device clearly isn't fit for its intended purpose (the preventative technology might work, but its diagnostic feature is completely useless). $\endgroup$ – Leushenko Jun 5 '15 at 0:42
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    $\begingroup$ They would have to be morons to think that hereditary traits are the same thing as being contagious. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Jun 5 '15 at 0:54
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    $\begingroup$ Skin pigmentation is a very minor genetic difference. If they don't know the first thing about variation in human genetics, reproduction, heredity, or valid health conditions of our population, then they have no business (or likely the know how for) developing nanomachines to "fix" humanity. It's a highly unbelievable blunder on their part. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Jun 5 '15 at 1:26
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    $\begingroup$ Why don't the machines kill people who are sick, but only mildly so? There are a lot of people with very real and very contagious colds who we would never quarantine, but the aliens don't know that.... $\endgroup$ – Kevin Jun 5 '15 at 4:08
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    $\begingroup$ A nice twist would be if the machines detected pregnancy as a parasite infection and cured it, as the aliens multiply by spores/eggs/whatever. Everyone is perfectly healthy and live a long life, but we still slowly die out. $\endgroup$ – Peteris Jun 5 '15 at 22:02
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Time viewing

The easy-to-build device allows anyone to view any point in the past "live" - that is, as if watching a video recording. Imagine the ability to look back on the ancient civilizations and discover if Stonehenge really was built by aliens!

And then, someone discovers that they can use it to watch anyone, anywhere in the world, up to and including the present... and 100% of all privacy everywhere goes out the window. Now, that may not sound like Armageddon, but it would have a huge, drastic, and immediate impact on civilization as we know it. Imagine if an already trigger-happy government overhears another government talking about its destruction. Instant pre-retaliation! Nukes fly! And, the second they launch, everyone else knows about them too; thermonuclear war ensues, and the population is wiped out.

If the device came from a culture with no sense of privacy, they would never even suspect that it could be an issue.

Mind Transmission

Like the internet, only for thoughts! Imagine the ability to speak to anyone in the world through nothing but shared thoughts. The military would snap it up immediately, as it would create an amazing instant communication for soldiers in the battlefield. Eventually, telecommunications would be replaced with braincalls; on the one side, users can think of a recipient, and speak directly into their mind. On the other, senders can "blanket send," and anyone who wants can join in and listen.

And, just like the Internet, in a few years 90% of every message sent is spam. Unairconditioned rooms full of sub-minimum-wage employees sending think-a-grams to every person in the world. Productivity declines rapidly as people everywhere are overwhelmed by the massive amount of messages their poor brains are bombarded with; entire industries fall due to the inability of their workers to focus on their job. Imagine being an engineer in a nuclear power plant, but on the phone 24 hours a day, even being woken up at night, just to be asked if you want to buy printer cartridges. You are not going to do your job well; bye-bye power. And without power, there will be no food, no fresh water, no technology. Billions will die. That doesn't even consider those who just snap and kill themselves, or the others who snap and kill those around them...

Of course, the hive-mind that designed it loves the concept, and are confused as to why no one else likes it.

Everything You Could Ever Want

The machine reads the mind of whoever is nearby, and presents them with the object they most desire, in its best form. Hungry? It gives a filling, yet healthy meal. Have to use the bathroom? It builds a luxurious lavatory fit for an emperor. Too many people who want to try it out? It builds a copy of itself all over the world, where anyone can access it.

Of course, to power its creations, it uses the equivalent of five years of life. Whatever you wish for steals half a decade of your life away. Even without realizing it, humanity dooms themselves through greed. Their final, collective wish? "Life! I'm too young to die!"

"Huh," the machine replies. "That's new. I don't know how to do that."

The ancient civilization that built the machine was used to living for millions of years; as they aged, they realized it was better to experience life than to live nigh-on forever, and built the machine to create an Eden for anyone who did not wish to live forever.

Oops.

Wormhole Toasters

Everyone loves toast. And everyone knows that the absolutely best toast is actually pulled from an alternate universe through tiny wormholes in the fabric of space-time. You didn't know that? It's true! Not many people have it figured out, but those "in the know" created the perfect toast-making machine. Using its own internal power source, each self-replicating toaster can produce up to one slice of toast per week! Warning: toast is actually summoned from an alternate universe.

All goes well, until someone has the bright idea of creating not one piece a week, but three pieces for each meal. To do that, he would need 21 toasters. But what if he invited friends over? They would want toast, too. So he creates 50 toasters, just to be safe. In fact, everyone in the world manages to get their hands on a few of these. The food shortage is solved with the advent of 100 billion toasters (some people really like toast). Every week on the dot, each toaster pops out a single slice of toast, weighing exactly 50 grams. 100,000,000,000 slices of toast every week, or 5.2 * 10^12 pieces a year.

On average, the planet gains about 40,000,000 kg a year due to dust. However, it now gains over 260,000,000,000 kg in a single a year! Worse, the sheer number of toasters - also built from wormhole material - begin making a rather nasty whining noise. As it turns out, all those wormholes together make one fantastically huge wormhole, destroying the entire earth.

The aliens who created the technology are flabbergasted. I mean, toast is great and all, but come on! It's just toast! Who likes toast THAT much? They never even considered the fact that anyone would want more than a slice or two a month.

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    $\begingroup$ The first suggestion is exactly the plot of the book The Light of Other Days, by Arthur C. Clarke. He went into a lot of fascinating applications of the technology, but nuclear war surprisingly wasn't one of them. $\endgroup$ – evankh Jun 5 '15 at 5:44
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    $\begingroup$ The first suggestion reminds me of an Asimov(?) story with "dinochicken". $\endgroup$ – Deolater Jun 5 '15 at 11:32
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    $\begingroup$ I saw that line about a toaster in the question and laughed. I can't believe you actually did it :3 $\endgroup$ – recognizer Jun 5 '15 at 15:14
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    $\begingroup$ The first suggestion also recalls the Asimov short story "The Dead Past". (Which, for the record, predates The Light of Other Days by several decades.) $\endgroup$ – ruakh Jun 6 '15 at 7:22
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    $\begingroup$ About the second suggestion, Mind Transmission; wouldn't the spammmers also receive spams from other spam companies, 24/7 ? How would that factor in? $\endgroup$ – Linkyu Jun 6 '15 at 10:50
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Wireheads*. The aliens understand perfectly well that any organism responds positively to pleasure. So they (or their robots) give each person a device which directly, and intensely, stimulates the pleasure center. A large fraction of the population never turn it off, and die of dehydration and hunger, and the social/technical cascade which follows kills many others. The aliens don't understand addictive behavior. Certainly none of their species would overuse such a device.

*This meaning of the term, as far as I know, was originated by Larry Niven and often used in his "Known Space" stories.

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    $\begingroup$ It should be noted that we have indeed tried out a version of this experiment by wiring up the pleasure centers of rats. The result was that all the rats did was press a button to trigger the electrodes all day and almost all died of hunger or dehydration. It should also be noted that we have actually found the pleasure center for humans and we can do this to ourselves today. The main thing stopping us is our understanding of the destructiveness of addiction from our experience with drugs. If aliens gave us this technology, one which we actually have today, we'll most probably destroy it. $\endgroup$ – slebetman Jun 8 '15 at 14:00
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    $\begingroup$ Better than that, we've even hooked up a few people. From the Wiki article on the pleasure center: 1986: A 48-year-old woman with chronic pain. "the patient self-stimulated throughout the day, neglecting personal hygiene and family commitments."[ $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Jun 8 '15 at 15:43
  • $\begingroup$ Or perhaps the aliens have been through that phase so long ago that the vulnerable genes have long since been weeded out. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Jun 14 '15 at 1:45
  • $\begingroup$ @LorenPechtel - Go read Larry Niven. He's way ahead of you. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Jun 14 '15 at 2:32
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They used to think life was inevitable, the apex of a beautiful thermodynamic spiral that shaped stone, water, heat, and light into primitive creeper-clays, which blossomed into fantastic shapes as evolution took hold. Again and again, they came to a new world in a likely orbit and saw alien but uncannily familiar forms: smoking chimneys on the ocean floor, continents rolling with rainbow waves—even, once in a very long while, the glint of mirrors pointed at the stars. Their best geological models assured them that wherever the right ingredients met in the right proportions, life would flourish.

They were wrong.

As they sailed further into the cosmos, they realized with growing horror that evolution on rocky planets runs at the edge of a lethal instability. Life branches out in just the wrong way, a new kind of chemistry falls into place, and evolution's kill switch snaps shut, flooding the atmosphere with toxic gas. They found planets with air so corrosive that even their probes succumbed, dug up fossils that could only be handled through layers of glass. They learned it could happen at any time, without warning. It happened on their birthworld, and would have made their home a necropolis, if by that time they hadn't learned enough to stop it. They learned of it, in part, from hundreds of young civilizations that had taken notes—panicked, or meticulous, or sublime—as their planets burned to ash.

They decided to do something about it.

They hurled into space an armada of uncrewed container ships, sailing the slow road to barely-visible stars. Each one was inscribed, in dozens of subideographic hyperlanguages, with an explanation of its purpose. Where they landed, their senders hoped, perplexed scholars or shamans or hive-dancers would eventually read and understand the omens of the disaster the inscriptions foretold. If the need arose, they would open the containers and wake the equipment inside. Armed with magical tools, on a quest as nonsensical as the sickness overcoming them, they would follow the poison in their air to its source and cut the photochemical chains dragging their world to the grave.

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    $\begingroup$ This is awesome. I regret that I can only +1 it once. $\endgroup$ – frodoskywalker Jun 6 '15 at 15:09
  • $\begingroup$ Aww, thanks, @frodoskywalker! I'm glad you enjoyed it. $\endgroup$ – Vectornaut Jun 7 '15 at 17:06
  • $\begingroup$ Good one! Eliminate the highly toxic, corrosive, and reactive element of Oxygen which gets spewed into certain worlds. $\endgroup$ – LindaJeanne Jun 8 '15 at 12:57
  • $\begingroup$ Cool idea. Though oxygen is not that highly corrosive (or, highly corrosive levels would kill the organisms producing it). Just think how long it takes for iron to rust, not to mention that many oxides form a good anti-corrosive layer (aluminium, copper, zinc, silver...) called tarnish or patina. Also, some idea about why the aliens would start messing with a planet which had oxygen catastrophe two billion years ago would be good for plausibility, as there's nothing to restore or preserve or prevent about it on the Earth any more. $\endgroup$ – hyde Jun 8 '15 at 18:13
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Death for everyone.

Let's assume that our friendly aliens have a great skill in medical care but not the smallest knowledge about how mammals live (I'm not sure about reptiles, birds and fishes). Our benefactors send us a way to cure us all by killing every virus, bacteria and germ, no matter what it does.

As we live thanks to a lot of bacteria, Wikipedia confirms me that we have at least 1.5kg of useful bacteria in our bodies, we become, us human beings, animals and even the earth, absolutely pure. And dead.

Killing rate : 100%

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    $\begingroup$ I believe fruit flies are so heavily used in science because they are the most complex organisms that can live in a sterile environment $\endgroup$ – Richard Tingle Jun 6 '15 at 11:52
  • $\begingroup$ I have friends who work in labs with mice that live in completing sterilized environments. All the mice's food and water is sterilized by autoclave. (Not sure how you make mice with sterilized GI tracts but that's what they tell me.) $\endgroup$ – Green Jun 13 '15 at 22:09
  • $\begingroup$ I asked my friend how to make sterilized mice and you do it by doing a C-section on a pregnant mouse using very careful techniques to avoid contamination of the mouse pup. Keep the pup in a sterile environment and ta-da! Sterilized mice! $\endgroup$ – Green Jun 15 '15 at 17:48
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The apocalypse could be caused, not by any effects of the donated technology, but by the very fact that we have had contact with an alien race.

The donated technology (this tech could do anything, cleans the environment, extends life, cures all ills, or whatever else it could be) has been delivered with us in such a way that its origins are not obvious.

After this technology has impacted on a significant number of peoples lives, the world population is divided into two:

  • Those who believe that this technology has come from Aliens

  • Those who believe that this technology has come from God

Neither side can produce enough evidence to convince the other side of the true origins of the technology, and both sides have their own ideas of how this technology should continue to be implemented.

The world becomes divided over the use of this technology and its origins.

This ends up as a global conflict.

The alien-believers and the god-believers wage war and reduce the planet to an apocalyptic state.


I believe this satisfies all of your conditions. It isn't the technology itself that kills us off. It is just simple human nature, arguing over things that cannot be proven, that kills us off.

To paraphrase Battlestar Galactica:

All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yes. Imagine something like Golden Rice, only something good that is useful everywhere. Some cultures (or leaders thereof) would rather destroy themselces and everyone else than accept it. The gift (or early effects of) should make small poor nations dangerous to everyone else, as well. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 5 '15 at 19:56
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    $\begingroup$ Also, the god-believers are split up over which god did this. $\endgroup$ – Paŭlo Ebermann Jun 8 '15 at 18:17
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The aliens knew that nationalism and racism was a cancer which kills many young civilizations; so they sent us a solution. As the ship entered orbit, its sensors catalogued the genetics of the dominant species. As it entered the atmosphere, airborne nanites spewed from its vents, seeding the upper winds with tiny transformation tools. Even as the vessel slowly settled to the ground, the fundamental nature of humanity began to change. Skin tones either lightened or darkened to an average of pale brown. Regional facial features faded along with distinctions in hair length, texture and color. By the dawn of the next day, all of humanity was, at least genetically united as a single race, with no distinctions left to hang our hatreds on.

If only the aliens had known how much we love our hatreds; that we humans define ourselves by the things that we despise. As the sun rose, many woke in horror, quickly realizing that their hatred would soon have no home. Soon they would not be able to distinquish their enemies from their families. Soon they wouldn't be able to tell the unwashed from high-borne nobility.

In despiration, they launched the missles, striking quickly, while they still knew where the enemy lived.

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  • $\begingroup$ Now that there are 16 other answers, I'm letting my offering back into the game, despite its similarity to Aify's. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Jun 5 '15 at 20:09
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The Third Party

The aliens leave behind a communications device intended to allow us to communicate with them. The aliens can't imagine that a sentient race would destroy/enslave other sentient beings. Before we activate it, our benefactors are destroyed by another hostile power who then monitors the frequency for other upstarts to murder.

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Always on telepathy to anyone within a limited range.

Most of us can't handle sharing our innermost thoughts, and relationships in general are typically based on sharing only a certain amount of thoughts.

Several countries that currently have tenuous relationships would break out into immediate war. Many people with internal struggles that society deems inappropriate would quickly be hunted down/ostracized.

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  • $\begingroup$ Didn't see this when I gave my (nearly identical) answer, but the timestamp says you posted yours hours ago, so I don't know how I missed it. Deleted mine. "The end of misunderstandings and miscommunication!" but also "the end of diplomacy, tact, and discretion!" $\endgroup$ – LindaJeanne Jun 5 '15 at 10:36
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    $\begingroup$ @LindaJeanne Not to mention the end of trust, privacy, secrets, crime. Even tons of people wouldn't handle the mental stress and kill themselves. Now imagine what it is like to communicate telepathically with someone that then 'relays' the communication to someone else, and so on until it reaches you again. Plenty of brains would be overwhelmed with too much data to process. $\endgroup$ – Ismael Miguel Jun 5 '15 at 11:25
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    $\begingroup$ Though, on the plus side at the end of it you'd have a culture that was pretty understanding. Or one that kept people at a distance, literally $\endgroup$ – Wayne Werner Jun 5 '15 at 11:29
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    $\begingroup$ Countries wouldn't declare war... countries wouldn't survive the first afternoon. The initial shock would completely shut down all government and military apparatus; anyone who is still able to function on the second day isn't going to be interested in command structures any more. $\endgroup$ – Leushenko Jun 5 '15 at 12:07
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    $\begingroup$ You forgot to mention how this is really an apocalyptic scenario. You still need the plutonium-fuelled rock band with its black show spaceship to be intentionally crashed into the sun... $\endgroup$ – leftaroundabout Jun 5 '15 at 23:42
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Seeing as I already have an answer that's not so innocent, here's a more innocent one.

Advanced communications technology.

The aliens provide each human with an advanced cell phone, which directly links two consciousnesses together for quick and easy communication. It does this by first obtaining a connection with a users brain, and then connecting with the other device and swapping streams of information.

The aliens use this technology on a daily basis, and they have sub-brains that are specially equipped to deal with the wave frequencies that this tech works off of. The sub-brain gets a handle on the connected persons consciousness and filters out everything except for the communication aspect. It also rapidly repairs itself, and it is the sub-brain of the aliens that this technology actively communicates with.

Humans, however, don't have this sub-brain. The technology still works because we have 2 hemispheres, but it puts a heavy toll on our brain. At first, it works really well and everyone loves it, but after about a month or two, the human brain is unable to handle the high frequency and strength of the waves required to utilize this device. It starts deteriorating rapidly, and our brains can't regenerate fast enough - and everyone who used it for more than a week starts developing brain cancer and showing symptoms of encephalitis. An wave of Alzheimer's starts affecting those who use this technology. Those who continue to use it experience more severe side effects, such as "Ghosted vision" (Where the users swap vision inputs from the eyes for a short period of time due to the consciousness connection) and "Ghastly sounds" (The hearing of the other persons thoughts).

Those that survive the cancer and other ailments slowly go insane.

Apocalypse complete.

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Video games

After centuries of development, games have become highly addicting, but because it was a gradual process, the Aliens have adapted to it and dont even recognize the addictiveness.
Unfortunately on all Tablets that were distributed to each human on Earth, Candy Crush 2000 comes preinstalled. After starting the game, almost all humans are unable to stop playing and die of cardiac arrest/seizures/malnutrition/dehydration

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Immortality

The cure for all disease! Death is no longer a problem!

Except that the aliens are nothing like us. Their bodies are a well designed system of interoperating parts communicating with each other, repairing only what's broken, ... Instead of being developed by the Blind Mad God of Evolution, they were designed in a directed process, by themselves. Natural life has long been forgotten on their planet, and they just want to bring good times to everyone in the universe they can reach!

When introduced to Earth, it makes every living thing immortal. Not just animals, and bacteria, and similar... but also every single living cell in the human body. As a super-cancer, every signal for cell senescence is countered, and all life becomes huge blobs of unrestricted cells, unable to die. Instead of grey goo, life on Earth forms a pink goo. Forever.

Obviously, this is a very soft sci-fi scenario.

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A stardrive.

As a safety precaution they have designed a stardrive that one sentient being enters in order to control it. While the drive field is active the ship is in free fall internally even when experiencing tens of thousands of gravities to an external observer. Unlike the drives of the Lensman universe the velocity attained is real but the missing acceleration will return the instant the drive is switched off. Attempting to push something out through the drive field results in its collapse. Edit: The effect of this behavior is the only safe way to use the drive is to match your initial velocity exactly before turning it off.

The aliens figured this precluded its use as a weapon--any attempt to launch a missile results in the destruction of the craft and the missile. While it can ram the requirement for a sentient controller means the pilot dies in the process.

The aliens had no concept of kamikazes or suicide terrorists.

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After careful monitoring the aliens notice we are solving two of our problems with one solution, our need for energy and our need for a carbon dioxide rich atmosphere. They send a ship that provides the ultimate in carbon dioxide producing energy generation through the burning and converting of the oxygen in the atmosphere.

Obviously they misunderstand the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is actually bad for us, but based on their monitoring and our lack of action in pulling carbon dioxide levels back, who could blame them for thinking that we want it?

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The Education Apocalypse

The Intention

One way to improve our technological and cultural advancement on all fronts would be to improve our ability to communicate and exchange information. If advanced aliens could successfully educate species at our level of cultural development to be receptive to alternative paradigms in general, dialogue among the populations of those species would become more fruitful.

Ideally, people of varying philosophical persuasions, religious believers, and academics with contrasting stances on any given issue would be able to recognize the validity in other perspectives. Dialogue would become constructivist rather than modernist as alternative constructs in science and philosophy were embraced. Freshly birthed frameworks could rocket humanity into an unprecedented era of cooperation, creativity, and advancement.

This education could be distributed in a number of ways, perhaps most easily by broadcasting via radio and television waves. If the automated help center had the resources, maybe they could send visual screens to every corner of the globe, or even download their instructional program directly into our brains.

The Application

If, however, humans en masse received this education, would it do us any good? I fear that human nature would do a number on this brave new world. Assume, as per the stated scenario, we receive this education and begin to apply it--not that we turn against it, but that we apply it successfully, and the species as a whole begins to embrace the validity of multiple paradigms.

Even as scientists and scholars recognize in full the validity of multiple constructs for explaining, say, gravity, the culture of academia still demands publication for pay. Academics quickly learn that the peer review process is changing drastically. It was once a constructive-and-sometimes-cutthroat feedback system that bolstered critical thinking and guided research away from less well-developed paradigms. Now, researchers are primed to see how almost any perspective could potentially account for the data. As this becomes apparent, "better" interpretations are not published; no interpretation is better than any other.

Theologians of various faith recognize the validity of multiple interpretations of sacred texts, along with multiple ways of reconciling those texts to scientific and historical data. Some begin to repair long-held divisions and join in a spirit of cooperation, upholding the verity of certain beliefs that they value and continuing to preach them, but at the very least acknowledging the rationale behind other perspectives.

Yet, beneath the blossoming harmony lies an all-too-human carnality that threatens to bring civilization to its knees.

The Apocalypse

Acceptance of additional frameworks spreads resources thin--many new, young researchers are drawn to burgeoning paradigms rather than lending their support to established ones. Political and social systems begin to fail as they are criticized to oblivion. No one can decide on what constructs to adopt, and citizens at all levels of their respective industries suffer in their productivity as a result of indecisiveness. People begin to feel aimless now that they acknowledge no question has a definite answer. Frustration with the inability of theology or science to provide sure conclusions, the world progresses to a post-scientific culture. Progress flourishes for a while, but it stagnates as existing frameworks are devalued and dismissed without any viable replacements.

Moral codes are abandoned by the population at large as society devolves into individualistic anarchy. The need to know, to understand provides such an illusion of security to humankind that without it, humans begin to seek other forms of control. As the stalwart, modernist generations die out, infrastructure collapses under the weight of that pursuit. Disease runs rampant without medical systems, chaos and war are on the horizon, and the only authority people still look to is the aliens' ever present reminder to trust nothing . . . believe . . . nothing.

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News that the friendly aliens are returning, will arrive in 10 years time, and will bring the final ultimate gift to the leader of the world.

Naturally news that a super advanced extra terrestrial civilisation will arrive in earth orbit in 10 years will panic everybody, including the idea that there is but a single additional delivery, given to whomever is considered the leader of the planet as a whole.

Coupled with an utterly ambiguous definition of who or what a leader is, or how it will be determined, as well as the sudden ultra scarcity and immense potential value of this last event, as well as the chance to meet these aliens directly, this will inevitably lead to some sort of dispute or conflict. The arrival of the aliens may even be unnecessary, just the mere notion that there is 1 last cycle left in the system before it ends could be enough.

Alternatively, make the message say "Your civilisation will end in 10 years", and let their imaginations turn it into a self fulfilling prophecy

From then on, you can throw as many apocalyptic measures as you like into the fray, perhaps even say the final gift is an evacuation to avoid a super nova or some other earth shattering natural disaster

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Perfect Robot Clones

The aliens brought a technology which allows us to scan a person's brain and perfectly re-create that person - at least mentally - in digital form. They also brought advances to robotics to give these digitized minds physical bodies that are far more capable than fleshy bodies.

One could argue that to re-create a person in digital form and then to destroy the original is not murder because the person continues to exist. And perhaps they would be right, but the technology opens other possibilities. Let's assume eventually all fleshy humans are converted to digital humans in robot bodies, and see what happens.

A digital person figures out they can simply make a second copy of themselves. They can keep regular backups in case their body gets destroyed, and be re-animated with only a small amount of lost time.

Another digital person figures out they can operate any robot body, not just the one built for them specifically. As long as another person isn't currently using that body, anyone can take it over. This is a good thing at first, as people start flitting about from body to body to save on time and transportation costs. Why drive an hour to work when you can just have a second body there?

Now I see a few ways this can all go downhill quickly.

6 billion of one, half a dozen of the other

Another digital person figures out they can use their "backup" at the same time they are also active. Now there's two of the same person (and one less available body). To deal with the discrepancy in experiences between the two versions of the person, they periodically sync up and share what they've done since last they were one.

Another digital person figures out there's no reason they can't make 2 backups. Or 1000. There's not really a limit on how many times a person can be copied, other than where to store the copy.

Another digital person combines the fact they can make unlimited copies of themself with the fact that each copy can be active in a separate body. Within a few minutes they've self-replicated until there are no more unoccupied bodies for them to inhabit.

Our John Doe now has roughly 6 billion copies of himself. And everyone else is stuck in whichever body they were in when John Doe made his realization. This initially causes havoc, as people can't get to work and John is in all kinds of places he shouldn't be. Then people (I'm not going to call them human any more) start trying to force John back into one body. John syncs with all of himself and realizes he's in trouble, so he fights back. 6 billion Johns physically and mentally attack any other person nearby. 1 John can't do much, but 6 billion Johns attacking in unison succeeds in killing a quarter of the population within 10 minutes, and many of their backup copies are also destroyed. Now John outnumbers all the other people, and is in almost every position of power. Further, he is synchronized regularly, and thus highly coordinated, whereas all the other people can't coordinate on any comparable scale.

John now rules. Any dissenters are destroyed - their bodies and their digital backups. Soon John figures out he doesn't have to destroy their bodies. He can remove the "brain" and manufacture a new one with another copy of himself, saving the cost of manufacturing a whole new body for himself. Before long, the number of non-Johns dwindles to a few scattered individuals, mostly hiding out in isolated locations around the world. Their numbers are reduced to 6 before John realizes he will soon be all alone with himself.

Worm

Let's back up to where people figure out they can keep backups. Pun intended.

Another digital person - we'll call him Steve - was a hacker back before everyone became robots. Steve figures out he can introduce a bit of code - a software worm/virus - into another person's digital personality that alters them. He first uses it to get his wife to stop nagging him to take out the trash and just do it herself. Then he gets in a fight with his boss a week later, and decides to use it again, with some improvements. Now Steve can get his boss to agree to anything Steve wants.

Steve has never been in a position of authority, and the power soon gets to his head. Before long (and with a few more modifications to his worm) he is running the company, and doing a terrible job of it. No one wants to buy their Widgets.

To keep his company from collapsing under its own weight, he makes one more change to his worm. But he's careless, and doesn't test it thoroughly. He sends his worm out to a handful of people, and it changes them to believe that they ABSOLUTELY MUST OWN A WIDGET OR THEIR LIFE IS MEANINGLESS. And those people promptly go buy Widgets, as predicted. But when their friends tell them how the competition's Gizmo has more features, they get mad. Several of them send the worm on to their friends, family, and co-workers to convince them Widgets are the Best™. A few rounds of arguments and email forwards later, every single person on the planet ABSOLUTELY MUST OWN A WIDGET OR THEIR LIFE IS MEANINGLESS. Of course, there aren't enough Widgets to go around, even if everyone could get their hands on one. The 98% of the world population who can't acquire a Widget, their life now meaningless, self-destructs.

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The Black Pudding Pakora.

Nutritious, delicious, and combines the best of Scottish and Indian cuisine. Not actually an alien technology, (though it may owe its origins to the Haggis Pakoras from a certain Iain Banks story) but it serves as an example of destructive cultural differences. These need not be cultural differences between the aliens and ourselves, but they may not understand (because they have no parallels, thus no experience in the matter) how deeply divided we are by our own cultural differences.

Take something intended as a gift, but accidentally insulting or breaching the deepest held cultural beliefs or taboos, and insert it into an already over-tense situation, a tinderbox waiting for the spark to ignite it.

Such as a standoff between radicalised religious society and another culture bristling with hate towards them and unaware of the catalogue of manners in which they give offence.

Labelling it halal when its main ingredient is pigs blood was probably an innocent mistake, but that's no comfort to the devout who ate it unknowingly.

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    $\begingroup$ products are labeled 'halal' in the uk? Ha, oh, I forgot that subway stopped selling bacon in their stores too. R-r-rule B-britannia... $\endgroup$ – hownowbrowncow Jun 5 '15 at 17:39
  • $\begingroup$ Halal labeling isn't required - in this case the makers chose to do so. Your example of an American sandwich franchise illustrates another overreaction to cultural differences. $\endgroup$ – Brian Drummond Jun 8 '15 at 10:17
  • $\begingroup$ So british culture doesn't allow the consumption of pork products? From across the sea it seems something strange is happening in the UK.. $\endgroup$ – hownowbrowncow Jun 8 '15 at 12:39
  • $\begingroup$ @hownow ... of course we sell and eat pork. We just try not to label it halal to confuse people who don't! You seem to be reading something very strange into this - perhaps channelling one side of the apocalyptic clashing cultures to boost my score? $\endgroup$ – Brian Drummond Jun 8 '15 at 13:36
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Standards matter

Using different unit system has already caused accidents (e.g. the Mars Climate Orbiter). So it may be that some one implements the instruction in meters and someone else in miles.

The several unit displaced around the globe fail to sync due to this difference and the UHEB (Ultra High Energy Beam) instead of destroying the CFC destroys the entire Ozone Layer.

Without the ozone shielding Earth from the dangerous radiation, we get all roasted.

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  • $\begingroup$ While I like this answer, I don't think it meets the Assume we're using it as intended and as instructed, and that it works as intended requirement. $\endgroup$ – Martin Carney Jun 6 '15 at 20:43
  • $\begingroup$ I missed that point :( $\endgroup$ – algiogia Jun 8 '15 at 8:16
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Star Trek style replicators

or any other compact device that anyone can own, that can manufacture any object. Our current political power structures lean heavily on who has weapons, and our economic structure leans heavily on people not having things. If everyone has a perfect replicator, everyone has all the guns and food they want!

Can you imagine what would happen if we were suddenly thrust into a post-scarcity society? The transition might not be pretty.

(This is a plot point in Singularity Sky, where a visiting alien race gifts a human colony with small factories)

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    $\begingroup$ "Replicator, I need a 50 megaton nuclear bomb immediately! That jerk of a Wal-mart manager won't live to regret firing me!" $\endgroup$ – Joshua Hanley Jun 5 '15 at 17:54
  • $\begingroup$ Note that Star Trek style replicators aren't capable of transmutation - so you'd still need the fissile material for a nuclear bomb, for example. It would still be a huge change, though. It's also been done about a billion times, of course :D $\endgroup$ – Luaan Jun 6 '15 at 10:49
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The ship could contain a benign gift package of impossibly advanced computing technology, allowing the populace to gather and manipulate extraordinary amounts of raw data in fantastically tiny periods of time.

This is a bit extreme I suppose, but if it were the case I believe it would cause great cultural/racial upheaval.

Firstly, the near-unlimited processing power implicated would be maliciously utilized by a group to calculate and simulate scenarios where a tactical strike (or blanket genocide) could be achieved with "minimal/zero repercussion".

Worse, anyone could instantly snapshot any genome and begin to extrapolate combinations, projecting what a specific zygote will turn out like.

The existence of such a notion could destabilize many things socially.

With super-crazy computer power (no AI entity here, just raw data processing) At some point, with this alien computer, the tech is used so that everyone (and everything's?) genome is capable of being charted and extrapolated. Within a generation or whatever, privacy as we know it is gone and there are all sorts of grand breeding programmes. Even growing murmurs advocating the notion would be destabilizing enough.

This newfound ability for the sudden specialization (and even speciation? but nonetheless culling) of man is enabled, and rejection of the (genetically) ugly would be relatively free to proceed apace.

In short, the future would be all dangerously fascist with thoughts of comparing dog breeds and their suited tasks to that of man and his suitable work.

Enough of that. In another vein, such computing power would further bring us together and live in the moment - becoming truly global. The gift of impossibly advanced computing technology might allow us to connect to each other simultaneously, and experience time in varying relativity and in virtual worlds. This seems peaceful as opposed to apocalyptic, but perhaps one day, it causes sudden irreversible sterility or power surge to brain OR! irreversible sterility PLUS power surge to brain.

Enough of that too.

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The aliens (let's just call them the Zorks) send out a gift to humanity: UNLIMITED GOLD!

However, they botch the aerobraking and lithobreaking procedures by an astronomical unit. Whatever ship full of butter they sent just made an Earth-kabob, punching out the core, stopping the natural spin (thereby dooming everyone on the top to death by friction,) and then moving Earth from its orbit. Death rate: 84.2745%. A bunch of Germans, Russians, and some Nigerians remain.

However, they also sent a large space station complex with it as well. Whatever's left of the Earth goes and takes the spaceships included with the main craft and moves to the space station. However, they discover that they can't get very much of the gold to the station, and furthermore - the station's life support runs on gold. Oops.

However, they find a warp pad on the station. It's labeled in feet, but nobody bothers to check the math on the instruction manual: whatever language the aliens have, their word for feet is more like a millimeter. The humans accidentally end up gapping their new home in half. Death rate: 98.348572%. Only a few Germans and a Russian remain. The Russian has the wise idea to get to the shuttles, which have infinite life support. He punches the warp drive, but finds him stranded on Mars due to really slow acceleration. He is killed in the resulting planetary collapse.

Humanity dies from a humiliation conga. If only the aliens hadn't tried to embed the ship in the planet...

Alternatively, let's say the Zorks are like the Peacekeepers from Farscape: they're highly allergic to heat. The Zorks are of the misconception that every form of life is allergic to life, and so they develop planetary heat shields.

They send these out in random directions, just hoping they hit a planet: any planet. As luck would have it, one hits Earth. Thankfully, they did write SOLAR RADIATION CANCELLATION DEVICE on it, but Israel is dead tired of being in the sweltering sun all day. They pull the lever (against orders from Ukraine, China, Austria, Argentina and Burma) and get themselves nuked for it. Not only does the solar heat suddenly vanish, solar panels (which have become the only source of power, because ten years prior the world had just expended their last drop of oil and their last puff of natural gas) stop providing power, the world just wound up in nuclear warfare. Meanwhile, the Zorks are laughing their butts off, thinking to themselves "they were actually going to go to war over solar radiation? Those guys must be insane!"

But in another universe, the Zorks actually receive something from Earth: the Voyager 1 space probe. Seeing as how the people of Earth like music, they send lots of musical robots to Earth, hoping that they can help improve economic conditions by making all of the Earth fertile. Soon, every one of the robots is activated by humanity, enjoyed by humanity... and is busy paving the Earth with soil. The only water on Earth is accidentally buried under tonnes of dirty-looking dirt. They then do the same process to the Moon, except they make it water: an irrigation system. Humanity is accidentally plowed and watered. The guys on the ISS move to the Moon, building a small society. The confused Zorks watch in horror as humanity seemingly vanishes from Earth: they love to eat, and were going to send new ovens and grills to Earth once they got started. But alas, the Zorks are now drowning in cooking appliances that went unused. They issue Order 66, which is for the robots to blare "HEY COME FARM!" really loud. The people on the Moon last ten years before the last one dies of ear collapse.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, it's lengthy. No, please don't banish me for the not-exactly-an-answer-but-instead-an-answer-wrapped-in-a-story. $\endgroup$ – Nefer007 Jun 7 '15 at 15:00
  • $\begingroup$ If you are wondering what happened to the Russian, it's because the warp portal created by the warp drive accidentally opened up inside of Mars. The Russian escapes the crash unharmed, but winds up with all his bones broken in the fall. $\endgroup$ – Nefer007 Jun 7 '15 at 15:02
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Worldwide earthquake

The aliens see what a pain it can be to have places at different altitudes - the effort of climbing hills, the deaths caused by falling from a height - and level out the landmass of the Earth so it's all flat and even. The upheaval involved is like an earthquake occurring everywhere in the world simultaneously. Buildings collapse, cities are destroyed; not a skyscraper in the world is left standing, and millions of people are killed by falling rubble. Huge cracks formed by the wrenching of the ground spew molten lava like volcanoes.

Going to the seaside becomes impossible, since there's now a cliff and a sharp drop to the sea everywhere in the world. The mean height of land above sea level is 840 metres (according to Wikipedia), and that's one hell of a cliff! Anyone who was out on a boat at the time is now trapped at sea for good.

The aliens' home planet has a surface made of sticky and malleable goo, and their homes are temporary tent-like structures (they're the most technologically advanced nomadic culture in the galaxy). They regularly perform changes to the surface of their planet, changing the heights of different places or creating interesting geographical features. They've never been to a rocky planet before, and they had no idea how devastating the consequences would be. They were only trying to make life more convenient for us!

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Genetic Enhancement

(but different than the previous genetic enhancement answer)

Imagine an automated system which senses and catalogs all life and the active alleles in the population at every gene site as well as a limited amount of projecting alternatives not active in the population. It provides instructions on how to create machinery estimate the outcome of given gene combinations and to alter the genes of fertilized eggs.

It delivers this bonanza to humanity which enables humans to select the genetics of future generations.

Individually couples select those alleles they feel most likely to allow their children to excel. And those children do excel, IQs in the hundreds, physically fit, disease free, etc. The abilities of these first few gene altered children force others to do the same in order that their children are able to compete with these "super humans".

Eventually, all children are gene altered.

At this point this could play out in two different ways:

  1. the gene altered children don't view unaltered humans as part of their species. They view us as we might view dogs (or even worse). They could exterminate us, put us in preserves, or otherwise limit us to enclosures (like zoos). In any case, our descendents aren't "human" as we understand it and they cease letting us reproduce.

  2. parents select all the same genetic traits. Which means our descendents don't have genetic variation and we and our descendents die out from in-breeding (but this relies on the alien machine breaking at some point so it smells of deux ex machina).

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The robohelp system drops teddy bears. Wait, wait, here me out :)

Conflict and death are a hallmark of any planet with evolution. These are scary things. After a brief scan of the world population, the robohelp system discovers that the most used item of comfort is a teddy bear (or the closest cultural equivalent). The scan also reveals that teddy bears help a child believe what they want, that everything will be okay and they are safe. Wishing to be extra helpful, robohelp includes a mechanism in each teddy bear that amplifies the strength of a human's confirmation bias. Children the wold over, fall in love with these new teddy bears.

Only, children aren't the only ones affected. Adult's confirmation bias is also strengthened leading to a hardening of opinions. Communism vs capitalism debates grow more heated. Hutus vs Tutsis. Christianity vs Islam. Really... pick your favorite opposing ideology and the debate is going to get ten times worse. Tensions flair, shots fired, nukes fly and everyone involved believes they're doing the right thing because the strengthened cognitive bias field tells them it is so.

And all over a helpful teddy bears intended to comfort frightened children.

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Nanomachines without killswitch.

Humanity can be gifted with self replicating nanomachines. This nanomachines converts anything into jelly pudding! And the killswitch is accidently broken.

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