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Space is mostly empty. There are few planets which could be life sustaining and even on those we are unlikely to find anything living (unless we contaminate). This means that on planets beyond our solar system, stranded colonists would have very different conditions to work with. No matter how "earth-like" a planet is, it may have the same mass, constitution and distance from the sun but the fact remains: there's no life. This means no wood, coal, fossil fuels or natural gases to work with.

Why am I hammering this point so hard? My setting has a planet inhabited mostly by robots. Humans play little to no role there. So its mostly robots going around with their business, mostly because a pre-terraformed planet is inhospitable to humans (so they have that going for them). Their forefathers were stranded colonists so they have no access to imports.

How does the lack of life on a planet affect technological development?

For the sake of believability, I need a list of branches of technologies that couldn't exist without our flora and fauna. I expect many chemicals to be unavailable, however I am woefully unfamiliar with the industry. I don't even know where to start. Hopefully you can help me with that.

[EDIT: I've given my question a complete overhaul to make it clearer but in essence the questions is the same.]

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    $\begingroup$ I have a robot here. It does nothing. It has not done anything for years because no-one has asked it to do anything. It would help guide the imagination if you laid out what the robots on your dead world were trying to accomplish. If they have nothing to accomplish they will sit and wait, like this robot is doing here. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Dec 28, 2021 at 16:19
  • $\begingroup$ I guess using human brains as batteries to run a massive simulated world would be off the table. 😁 $\endgroup$ Dec 29, 2021 at 10:10
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    $\begingroup$ "Their forefathers were stranded colonists..." Do they have access to knowledge of chemistry? Did they start out with the equipment necessary for a colony? Did they plan for the possibility of being stranded? Has knowledge been lost since they were stranded? Did they bring any amount of bioengineering equipment with them? $\endgroup$ Jan 17 at 2:42
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    $\begingroup$ @justforplaylists Yes. Yes. Yes. No. No it's been lost in the crash. $\endgroup$ Jan 17 at 5:19
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    $\begingroup$ It sounds like you have some civilization set up already in the form of the colonies, or what's left of them. They aren't starting from scratch since the knowledge that the humans need to keep their life support running should inform them on numerous scientific fields, electronics, indoor farming, water recycling, & possibly atmospheric isolation being among them. What are you really asking? If you want to know what parts of the tech tree are unavailable on a world without organic life, you should pivot this to ask about inorganic beings starting completely from square one, as in caveman level $\endgroup$ Jan 20 at 8:06

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You've already touched on the biggest problem to technological development; the colonists will struggle to make carbon monoxide and that means they will be unable to crack any oxides without electricity and they won't be able to crack oxides with poor water solubility in any great volumes at all. That means that large scale use of metals is probably a non-starter unless they have a lot of generation capacity going to waste.

The biggest problem the colony faces is not lack of materials to build technological artifacts though, it's the atmosphere; there will be little to no free oxygen and the composition will probably be highly corrosive making plastics, composites and ceramics a must for external structural elements.

The lack of bulk carbon feedstock makes plastics more difficult to manufacture but the lack of oxygen means the atmosphere is likely to be high in volatile hydrocarbons, particularly Benzene which can be extracted through cyro-distillation and used to make polymers. The lack of free oxygen may also effect the colonists ability to produce bulk ceramics because it limits their ability to maintain an oxidising, or even neutral, atmosphere in the kiln which can be vital for many operations. Composites of boron or silica in polymer resins are likely to be the most lasting and cost effective materials.

Technology is not likely to evolve on a world under the circumstances described, even if the colonists had a large enough population to make a go of it genetically, there aren't enough people; it is estimated that you need ~300 million people to support a single microchip factory (that's just the logistics to run it, not the consumer base to buy the output). Furthermore the environment is also going to be so hostile to the components of most gadgets as to render the working life of much vital equipment extremely short and thus the lifespan of the colony is going to be strictly limited.

Unless the technology they're using is based in molecular printers, then they have the option to use a far wider range of feed stocks and use them in reaction paths that are either impossible, or just impossibly expensive of time, wastage, and/or energy, using traditional chemistry.

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No life ⇒ no longer chain hydrocarbons ⇒

  • no lubricants for your robots
  • no rubber for any elastic/flexible membranes those robots would benefit
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    $\begingroup$ Carbon from the atmosphere and silica sand should make silicone rubber and silicone lubricants feasible. $\endgroup$ Dec 29, 2021 at 10:16
  • $\begingroup$ You can have organic chemistry and compounds without organic creatures. Methane, benzene and ethane, for example can form via other, non-biological means. $\endgroup$
    – Sonvar
    Jan 3 at 19:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Sonvar cool, now find - for example - fatty acids in to 12-20 carbons range resulted by non-biological means. $\endgroup$ Jan 4 at 0:47
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    $\begingroup$ @AdrianColomitchi fatty acids, no, but amino acids, yes. Pre-biotic chemistry is indeed possible and indeed if can form long chains that could be further utilized by other processes later. OP does not define what they mean by "no life." This could include any chemical chains up to and maybe including viruses and still be considered "no life." $\endgroup$
    – Sonvar
    Jan 4 at 14:39
  • $\begingroup$ @AdrianColomitchi I know the spark jar experiments did create, relatively, large quantities of lipids but not to what chain length. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Jan 21 at 9:16
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Probably not what you're looking for, but I've always had a theory about such a machine race.

Setting aside the lifeless world for a bit as I'm not a scientist and another answer seems to already address the practical issues with that. With a race of robots, I theorize that, assuming the robots possess intelligence comparable to huamns, are as innovative and creative as humans, and has as complex social/civilization and philosophical structure as humans, they would actually strive towards improving their designs to becoming more like organic life.

Metallic lifeforms has many disadvantages. They cannot heal/regenerate. They cannot independently generate energy. Even solar panels and battery cells have limited life span. In some cases, they cannot be repaired without being "turned-off" which leads to an interesting philosophical question for the machine race - is it the same continuous stream of consciousness / electrons forming your thought matrix if you are turned off then back on? Megaman's "older brother, Protoman, actually posited this as a surprisingly deep philophical question as part of his origin story, which was why he rejected Dr. Light's proposed upgrade to give him a perpetual power source but requires fully shutting him down to install it.

Even if nanomachine swarms exists, it needs material to conduct the repairs. Metals are pretty expensive and energy intensive to extract and use. By contrast, carbon-based organic material can be easily extracted on a habitable planet and self-replenishing. If such a machine race existed, and decides to colonize other planets, would they not design new robots that can harvest and utilize these organic material. They might devise a container to store these materials, perhaps in the center mass/torso of their body, like a stomach. This container likely connects to microfactories that can extract material and distribute to the rest of the machine, but to ensure all materials are sorted through properly it likely will go through a narrow tube, but wraped around compactly to fit inside the torso for ease of carry. However, narrow tubes don't seem like the ideal factory to build your machine parts, you might want autonomous nanomachines that reside in said tube to process these materials. Sound familiar? That's a human gut.

An advanced machine civilization that is as socially complex as humans would also develop very advanced wifi protocols to diagonose each other, but with enough firewalls to protect each individual machine's privacy and prevent being "mind controlled". Doesn't this sound a lot like human empathy?

Your world need not follow my theory where the robats eventually take an organic form, but I do think there may be some ideas that could be adopted. They can easily have a machine stomach and machine gut that processes strictly minerals, but I do think they would devise a lot of technology to overcome many inherent shortcomings that afflict our modern day perception of robotic designs.

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An ever stronger need for processing power and efficiency

I don't know if these robots are under threat from other bots in the scrap/material/part/lubricant harvesting sense but whether or not they are shouldn't affect my answer too much.

The way I see it, mechanical life would try to increase their processing power as much as possible while trying to innovate more and more ways to efficiently perform tasks like energy and resource harvesting, moving around, colonization of resource zones and establishment of infrastructure, and so on, and if they can't be any more efficient they'll invest into energy recapture systems to make use of energy that they couldn't efficiently make use of(like waste heat) in the performing of a task and re-use that energy for something else.

What's important to bots is the ability to solve problems and increasing their runtime, this would necessitate better processors and better ways of using and harvesting energy, along with trying to innovate materials and designs that last longer than what they currently have, or wear down less, to reduce the time, energy, and resources spent on repairs which would be a huge waste in their eyes when it'd be more efficient if structures didn't break down in the first place, but that's not really attainable so the best they can hope to achieve is to have nearly everlasting forms and nearly perfectly efficient energy harvesting and usage methods.

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(Note: I don't have relevant expertise, so a lot of this is speculation.)

There are a couple problems I see on a planet without life. The first problem to consider is accessing carbon. Most carbon would be in the form of carbonates, which would have to be mined, and the carbon would have to be extracted. If the planet is cold like Mars, there might be frozen carbon dioxide. There would be carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and oceans as well, but extracting useful quantities would be difficult would require processing huge amounts of air/water.

Carbon dioxide and carbonates are quite stable, or they would react with something else. So they will require either energy or some reactive chemical to convert into a useful form. And without biotechnology, catalysts are limited, so at some stage they'll need large amounts of energy to access some necessary material.

That leads to the second issue, energy. Without hydrocarbons available, the main energy sources will be solar or wind/water/nuclear/geothermal powered turbines. The major problem I see here is a lack of plastics for insulating wires and electronics. Ceramics will be able to fill the role of plastics in some situations, but they will also be partially limited by the lack of organic precursors. Since electricity is so useful, I think they will find a way to make it work, either by finding inorganic substitutes or by devoting a large portion of their energy to producing the plastics needed for upkeep on their energy generation. However, this energy generation is likely to be inefficient, at least until they can take advantage of economies of scale. This also makes mining, smelting etc. more difficult.

The last problem is organic synthesis. I don't think much is impossible. Simple reactive molecules can be produced by applying energy or heat to nonreactive materials. These can then be used to synthesize more complex molecules. Humans also have large amounts of microbes living on and in their bodies. The fact that there are a small number of humans means they can eventually redevelop biotechnology - although most microbes likely won't survive outside human habitats. The problem with organic synthesis is that it will be extremely expensive due to the lack of available carbon. It will also take a lot of effort to figure out how to make complex organic molecules. Thing like biologically-derived medicines and catalysts will be the most difficult.

So to sum up:

  1. It will be possible to make most substances, or acceptable substitutes, but specific complex organic molecules (i.e. medicines) will take years or decades to develop and can only be made in tiny quantities.
  2. Any organic (carbon-containing) materials will be require a lot of resources. Large plastic objects will be prohibitively expensive.
  3. It may be difficult to transmit electricity.

This suggests a few general principles to me:

  1. The technology is designed to take direct advantage of natural resources. Technologies like geothermal forges, wind/waterwheel-powered factories, sailboats, use of natural caves for shelter, etc. will allow the inhabitants to avoid wasting electricity.
  2. The technology is designed to produce as little waste as possible. A lot of effort is put into designing technologies efficiently to avoid waste - think things like honeycomb designs for metal struts to avoid using unnecessary material. The effort of designing something correctly is always less than the cost of using an inefficient design.
  3. Organics are mostly only used for electronics, medicine, basic needs like growing food and clothing for the humans. Most large objects are made of metal, glass, rock, cement, or ceramic.
  4. Reducing, reusing, and recycling is extremely important.

The limits on plastic are a big difference. Almost everything is painted to prevent wear and tear - it will need to be armored or glazed or galvanized or covered in cement or clay instead. Rubber tires are crucial for transportation - expect more boat, rails, and walking robots. There's no wood - furniture will likely be made of concrete, and bedding might be made of sand, or flexible wire mesh. Clothing and protective gear would be difficult to make.

The human population will likely remain small, due to the large amount of carbon required to sustain human life.

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A factor to consider is that the elements in the crust may be less subject to mining and extraction, and thereby be less accessible.

For instance, iron (Fe) is found in a distinct layer of rock which was associated with the oxygenation of the atmosphere, a process that was caused by the development of photosynthesis in living cells.

There are hypotheses (perhaps less well documented, or at least less well known) that other mineral deposits are biogenic.

To the extent that the deposits are strictly due to chemical and mechanical processes, they could still exist and be extracted. To the extent that biological processes concentrate the minerals to extractable levels, getting the raw materials for machine life will be a difficult bootstrap problem.

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