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In this world, a certain kind of hive-minded machine intelligence has spread and become endemic. It consists of a set of microbots capable of decomposing and re-smelting metal. Given raw materials, they can make more of themselves, they can link up into a semi-intelligent neural net, they can re-shape their immediate environment, and they can build larger robots to do their bidding. The large robots are dragons, and their mission is to collect all metal, wherever they can find it, and bring it back to the den. Naturally they like to tear down houses and eat the silverware, and they thrive on devouring armored knights. When threatened, or when there's a fat pile of gold to share, rival dens will cooperate and no army can stand for long. But if they don't smell metal, the dragons will leave humans alone and focus on eating wood - their main energy source.

So after a few decades, metal is basically not available, and it stays that way. My question is: what kinds of technology can we still build to fight back? Can we make glass? Fiberglass? Are powerplants and energy transmission possible? Self-propelled vehicles? Computers?

How can humanity become powerful enough to take back the metal from the dragons?

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  • $\begingroup$ It can't stay that way. Gunpowder, explosives, acids, adhesives, all come to mind. The world of chemistry is far larger than just metals. Ceramic arrow tips can be made to pierce many metals. But, you appear to be asking two questions (you get only one): what technologies can be invented/used and can humanity overcome the dragons? Those are very different questions (and the dragons will be overcome before the limit of genius is reached). Please edit your question to ask a single question. Thanks. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 16, 2020 at 16:24
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH edited. The last sentence is what's intended as "the question". $\endgroup$ Nov 16, 2020 at 18:25
  • $\begingroup$ Can you describe your dragons, please? I think most people hear "dragon" and think "flaming, flying" creature. Is that what you're thinking? $\endgroup$ Nov 20, 2020 at 1:02
  • $\begingroup$ @RobbieGoodwin imagine a long steel lizard with 6-10 legs and a scrap grinder for a mouth. $\endgroup$ Nov 22, 2020 at 5:42
  • $\begingroup$ @RobbieGoodwin media.tenor.com/images/d575c444f8475d76c97dba6cb5a0ae59/… $\endgroup$ Nov 22, 2020 at 5:47

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Some real problems here - human technology prior to the industrial revolution consisted of using mostly wood and metals to build stuff. After that there are other materials, but metals are involved in almost everything.

You take both the metal because dragons hoard it, and wood because dragons eat it, and we're left with... Sand and rocks, basically. Maybe bones. We're back to the stone age, because even the bronze age is denied to us.


Also notice that if there are no other sources around, humans can be harvested for iron. Granted, you will need a powerful centrifugue, but of you have nanomachines assembling into dragons this is child's play. An adult male will usually have 4 grams of iron in his body. Might not seem much in most scenarios, but of you find a human on polar ice or on a boat in the middle of the ocean, that might be the best source of iron. This does not bode well for humanity.

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  • $\begingroup$ Curious, if the technological starting point was capable of creating self-aware robots, why would be be thrust so far back technologically? We can do a lot of things with just Pyrex - not to mention ceramics. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 16, 2020 at 16:27
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH pyrex products come from factories, which do have a lot of metal. In the very least mass production is lost because you need copper to have electricity available as it is today. Think of the chain of production, not just the products that come from it. $\endgroup$ Nov 16, 2020 at 17:08
  • $\begingroup$ The dragons will eat all metal, but only as much wood as they need. Mostly, they can get enough just by munching on dead branches in the forest. Good point about the iron in blood! :| $\endgroup$ Nov 16, 2020 at 18:22
  • $\begingroup$ Pyrex can be manufactured using clay. I'm having trouble seeing the debilitation you are. Will it hurt? Oh, yeah... it'll hurt. Bronze age hurt? I'm having trouble with that one. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 16, 2020 at 19:46
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    $\begingroup$ 4 gram of iron means that the human body is about 0.0065% iron. In contrast, the average iron content of any random rock or soil is 0.2% to 55%; so, the dragons would be much better off eating dirt for the next few billion years than they would eating people. While the ocean or ice caps might have the most iron in human form, why would the dragons be concerned with going these places to begin with? $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 19, 2020 at 22:34
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In about 1150 BC there was a thing called the Bronze Age collapse where many civilizations that once had bronze were suddenly forced to do without do to the collapse in the trade networks that made it all happen. While many of these civilizations eventually turned to iron, there was a brief sort of Stone-Age Renaissance that happened in central Europe where you saw various Germanic, Celtic, and Greek nations stop using metal in a lot of their things, yet, they continued to make a lot of the same tools, weapons and armor they had before using non-metallic methods; so, from a total technology perspective they did not really revert back to the stone-age, even though their building materials largely did.

Where they had used bronze before, you start to see the same styles of weapons, armor, and tools being made with things like hardened leather, bone, stone, and tusk.

Pretty much anything you can do to shape natural materials with metal tools can also be done with stone tools and just a bit more patience, and pretty much any shape you can make with metal can be made with other natural materials. Wagons, plows, kilns, large buildings, and sailing boats can all be made without metal tools or parts, but they require different techniques that take a bit more time and skill. Even many Early industrial revolution inventions like water wheel powered textile mills could be made without metal if necessity dictated it.

The biggest hurdle you are probably going to hit is trying to transition into the late industrial revolution. Things like steam engines and railroad tracks have to survive extreme vibrational, thermal, and percussive forces than other materials are just really poorly suited for.

A Miner Frame Challenge

The proportions of metals used in robotics are very different than the proportions of metals available in the Earth's crust. The Robots simply would not have a reason to waste their time collecting elements that they have no use for; so, they would only gather metal until they run out of the first essential elements that they need, then they will stop. This means that certain elements like lithium, gold, and copper may be heavily depleted, but your world's total supply of iron, aluminum, etc. will barely be affected. This means that humans could continue the advancement of technology through the industrial revolution and not really begin to slow down until you hit the early Info Age because we would not have the right elements to make a decent computer or telecommunications network. That said, we could achieve most World War II level technologies just fine. So, unless your dragons are much stronger than your typical fantasy dragons, people could probably get to the point we need to eventually take them on.

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  • $\begingroup$ you mean 1150 BC, yes? 1150 AD is 16 years before the battle of hastings! $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Nov 17, 2020 at 19:45
  • $\begingroup$ Opps, yes, that is what I meant. Typo fixed. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 17, 2020 at 22:19
  • $\begingroup$ Very cool. Where can I find further reading on the period in central Europe you described? $\endgroup$
    – Harabeck
    Nov 17, 2020 at 22:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Harabeck bronze age colapse and Sea People are the start of one of the literal "dark ages" - we lack most records from that episode (egypt is one of the few somewhat intact ones). $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Nov 17, 2020 at 23:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Harabeck Try looking up "Geometric Period". Most of what you will find will be in reference to Greece specifically, but there is a fair amount there. If you are more interested in my comments in regards to Celtic and German technology during this period, I don't recall where I learned about it, but I think it started with researching riveted chainmail and took a course down a very deep rabbit hole... $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 18, 2020 at 21:44
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We can look at this in two ways: ancient non-metal technology, and modern non-metal technology. Ancient technologies were much more quickly advanced by metal, but we have seen instances, including ancient Egypt and China, where ceramics, sinews and wood were used to make massive technological leaps. Think of the terracotta army in China; while that would have been difficult to make with only wood or ceramic tools, it would not have been impossible by any means, and even today it remains an artistic and technological masterpiece. The pyramids were built by predominantly slave labor and rudimentary wooden levers, to lift stones that none but the largest machines of today could even hope to budge.

In today's technology, we have discovered ceramic materials that can almost entirely replace pure metal technologies, including knives, machining tools, and even carbon nanotube and biological computing. There is no question that the previous generation of metal-based electronics led to our technology today, but in the same vein, human creativity has found substitutes when materials are scarce in virtually every historical instance. Will it slow down the march of civilization? Almost certainly. But not stop it.

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If you are talking about this happening to a modern day society, then there is hope, as we have way more scientific knowledge and existing advanced materials than stone age humans, even if metal is taken away. Modern mass manufacturing would be dead without metal. Existing non-metal mass manufactured products will still be usable. However, many of these products will have at least metal screws in them so would probably get ripped apart if the dragons really do consume every last gram of metal!

Ceramic vessels can be used in place of metal ones. Perhaps a ceramic steam engine can be built instead of a metal one? Existing thermoplastics can be reused and reformed by heat (all those stockpiles of recyclable plastic waste can finally be put to use). Glass fibres + polymers/resins could be used to build very strong/light structures and weapons, although if the dragons are made of metal, it's going to be a tough fight!

Building farming implements from these materials would be doable so first we would stabilise the food supply production without metal. There may still be mass starvation and die-off.

Very slow and clunky mechanical wooden/plastic computers would be possible. Wireless radio tech is not really possible without metal even though some comms satellites may be still operational if the dragons cannot reach space. Instead, fiber data networks are used for communications, at first using Morse code and a small candle flame and one end of the fiber that can be mechanically obstructed for on/off, then later developing mechanical automated booster/repeaters to send longer distance along multiple fibers, with routing.

Out of desperation and having ethical regulation thrown out the window, genetic engineering takes off in a big way. Self-evolving self-learning biological computers using neurons and DNA soon become available. They are able to communicate through the fiber network forming a new biological Internet (BioNet). The BioNet further improves collaboration of the remaining mankind, pushing genetic engineering to even greater heights. Eventually through a combination of growing our own biological "dragons" spewing metal-dissolving acid-bacteria we are able to fight back at the metal dragons and reclaim our rightful dominance of the planet.

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