So, in a semi-biopunk semi-atompunk world I'm planning to write a story set in, computers are no more advanced than they were in our world during the mid-1980s.

The problem is that they also have the following technologies:

  • Artificial wombs capable of incubating a foetus/embryo from zygote to viability
  • Sufficiently advanced genetic engineering to majorly alter the body plan of an animal without severe health complications and create healthy hybrids of species from different genuses within the same taxonomic family
  • Affordable lab-grown organs and limbs
  • Liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs)
  • Closed-cycle gas-core nuclear thermal rockets ("nuclear lightbulbs")

My question is how can they have the above technologies with only mid-1980s-level computers? Is this even remotely possible?


3 Answers 3

  1. The biotechnologies you describe can all be done with human cloning - which does not require computers, even if it requires some proteins that were discovered using computers. It may not appeal to our society, but an anencephalic fetus could surely grow up to be in demand in the labor market as a surrogate mother; alternatively, it could be auctioned off for parts. True human-animal hybrids are hard to picture, but at least chimeras, made by intermingling embryonic cells, have been known from well before the 1980s.

  2. The nuclear designs you're asking for are surely best generated with a computer, but if you're willing to accept 1940s-50s levels of fallout, a trail and error approach could have delivered as good a final product as you suppose is possible.


My question is how can they have the above technologies with only mid-1980s-level computers? Is this even remotely possible?

We don't have any of those technologies with early-2020s-level computers, which means that they are either:

  1. impossible to do with 1980s technology too, or
  2. aren't dependent the level of compute power.

Your first three requirements require pharmaceutical and genetic engineering breakthroughs... of the three, I feel that it is the creation of novel hybrid species which seems like the least plausible thing, because it isn't obviously possible in the first place. Lucky advances in artificial tissue growth and some novel handwavium approaches to antirejection drugs might explain commercially viable lab-grown tissues and organs. I don't actually know what the obstacles are to exowombs (and researching them is too much effort right now) so I'll pass on that one.

Genetic engineering is the most obvious thing that will suffer from lack of compute power... genomes are large, requiring reasonable amounts of fast random-access storage, and assembling them requires a certain amount of computer time that may not be available in your setting.

Of the latter two, LFTRs seem like they're just a Simple Matter of Engineering, and so handwaving them in seems just fine. It isn't immediately obviously that nuclear lightbulbs are possible at all... certainly, lots of research went into them, and some non-trivial amount of it remains classified, but they are crazy gonzo engineering ideas that seem somehow less plausible than magical hybrid species. I suspect there are better nuclear heavy lift designs you can build on which are less technically difficult, but that's a topic for another question. It may be that you can build a closed-cycle gas core nuclear rocket without the aid of modern computer simulation and modelling tools, but honestly it seems pretty dubious to me.

  • $\begingroup$ Can't at least some problems with the computing power be resolved by clusters? $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Feb 5, 2022 at 19:57
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Otkin Amdahl's Law tends to bite hard with clusters. Also, you have to think about how much more vastly powerful modern computers really are... the amount of compute power in your household right now might actually exceed the world's compute power going into the 80s. $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2022 at 8:57
  • $\begingroup$ I do not know much about computing apart from the basics. I just remembered that I read somewhere about clusters made of old game consoles, which are less powerful than PCs. So, I was wondering if something similar could be done with the 1980s technology. I defer to your expertise here. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Feb 6, 2022 at 18:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Otkin that's certainly been a thing in the past, but even the PS3 clusters are 2006 technology. Using Moore's "law" as a rough rule of thumb, a single mid-noughties computer might be 256 to 8192 times more powerful than its equivalent in the 80s, eg. as powerful as a whole cluster of its ancestors. Exponential growth in performance is a pretty staggering thing. $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2022 at 18:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Otkin and although I won't go into detail here, even for tasks which can be readily parallelized, running a cluster effectively requires an awful lot of administrative overhead and complex scheduling software and networking hardware. Compute clusters weren't really even a thing until the early-mid 80s for these reasons. $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2022 at 18:53

My question is how can they have the above technologies with only mid-1980s-level computers? Is this even remotely possible?

You are probably forgetting that we have been several times on the Moon in the 70's with computing power so small that it would make any today app developer laugh hysterically if they had to program with that in mind

On board Apollo 11 was a computer called the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC). It had 2048 words of memory which could be used to store “temporary results” – data that is lost when there is no power. This type of memory is referred to as RAM (Random Access Memory). Each word comprised 16 binary digits (bits), with a bit being a zero or a one. This means that the Apollo computer had 32,768 bits of RAM memory.

In addition, it had 72KB of Read Only Memory (ROM), which is equivalent to 589,824 bits. This memory is programmed and cannot be changed once it is finalised.

To put that into more concrete terms, the latest phones typically have 4GB of RAM. That is 34,359,738,368 bits. This is more than one million (1,048,576 to be exact) times more memory than the Apollo computer had in RAM. The iPhone also has up to 512GB of ROM memory. That is 4,398,046,511,104 bits, which is more seven million times more than that of the guidance computer.

But memory isn’t the only thing that matters. The Apollo 11 computer had a processor – an electronic circuit that performs operations on external data sources – which ran at 0.043 MHz. The latest iPhone’s processor is estimated to run at about 2490 MHz. Apple do not advertise the processing speed, but others have calculated it. This means that the iPhone in your pocket has over 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed man on the moon 50 years ago.

If we have managed to send people on the Moon and get them back alive with that puny computing power, and we have also managed to build and run nuclear power plants and calculations for creating very sophisticated nuclear devices with nothing as performing as a computer of the mid 80's, it will be possible to find a way to control those technologies.

If I am not mistaken what you have with those technologies you listed is a problem of controlling, not computing.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Although the point is still valid, your source doesn't point out that clock cycle is not comparable across different processors -- as AMD would have gladly told you back in 2008 or so, when a 1.2 GHz AMD processor would wipe the floor with a 3.8 GHz Intel processor on a real-world performance basis. I'm just being pedantic, of course. $\endgroup$ Feb 6, 2022 at 0:19

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