Let's say there is an ecosystem with lots of familiar organisms. Bacteria, plants, fungi, metazoans.

Then a great deal of high-tech waste is introduced into that ecosystem. First, is there any way that familiar organisms could benefit from that? Are there any biochemical processes that could use processed silicon, copper, plastics, etc.?

Moving further, what might cause those organisms to begin "unintentionally" availing themselves of complex properties of that waste, like the ability to perform calculation? Is there a series of gradual evolutionary steps that could make such a thing plausible? Could something like a brain-computer interface arise "naturally" in the right conditions?

I realize that human inventiveness is itself evolved behavior, but I'm wondering if these kinds of complex and subtle interactions could arise through other selection processes.

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    $\begingroup$ Even allowing for Tom's answer of using pre-consumer waste, "performing calculations" is not generally that useful to organisms. Cockroaches can't add, but they're doing just fine. We, as a species, only found that useful thousands of years into our development. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Sep 16, 2022 at 1:29
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    $\begingroup$ (a) For future reference, asking more than one question is a reason to close the question (click "Close" and read "Needs More Focus"). (b) Inviting a discussion is verboten on Stack Exchange, another reason to close the question. (c) The word "cyborg" has a specific meaning and it's impossible for something to both willingly and unintentionally become one (you can unwillingly and unintentionally become one, but that's inapplicable to your question). (d) Finally, evolution requires millions/billions of years. I'm having trouble believing any technological waste could last that long. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Sep 16, 2022 at 7:21
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    $\begingroup$ First give a big ape a cell phone, then make the phone very compelling... $\endgroup$ Sep 16, 2022 at 11:46
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    $\begingroup$ Could you please re-phrase that, at least to drop 'Unintentionally…'? Otherwise, how are you not advocating 'intentional evolution'? That might be justifiable and is that what you're claiming here? Nothing could evolve into a cyborg for the simple reason that such an outcome would deny the definitions of both 'evolution' and 'cyborg.' If you have fresh definitions to offer, please do. Else, what are you saying? $\endgroup$ Sep 16, 2022 at 19:53
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe, if the technology is highly advanced - think something like self-replicating medical nanobots; it could start out as some kind of a symbiotic relationship that gives a competitive advantage in some (perhaps unexpected) way, and is also somehow involved in the reproductive cycle of the host organism (e.g., maybe the nanobots are inherited in a way similar to how mitochondria are inherited), so that evolution over many generations can occur. Then let your imagination run wild. P.S. Find some materials online that explain evolutionary mechanisms at the population level in more detail. $\endgroup$ Sep 16, 2022 at 23:27

5 Answers 5


Extremely unlikely

There are two major hurdles:

  1. there is not nearly enough uniformity in the high-tech waste.
  2. the life-form will probably need to be able to precipitate metals in its biology (which I think is either rare or unheard of in reality)

Evolution relies on trial-and-error at an astronomical scale. For this scenario to play out, you'd need countless individuals to each encounter an identical piece of tech refuse, so that one era's not-fatal juxtaposition could, over many generations, turn into a harmless pattern, and eventually develop into a useful bond.

You'd need there to be at least one common piece of electronics that very frequently appears in exactly the same state as far as physical form and functional state. You'd need a practically unlimited supply of those exact parts, and that supply would need to be uninterrupted over geological time.

How might that happen?

Imagine a scenario where a massive supply chain is completely run by an artificial intelligence whose masters have long gone extinct or abandoned it. This supply-chain makes electronic wrist watches, and it's completely self-sustaining: it finds the raw materials, extracts and refines them, manufactures all the parts, and assembles them into working watches.

But now its masters are dead. (The watches are slow, so the masters lost track of time and missed lunch, and dinner, and breakfast, and got fired from their jobs -- not for being late but for being unproductive -- and their mates left them and so one day there was no next generation.)

So the watch parts are piling up in the warehouse, and similar pile-ups have occurred at every stage of production. For tens of thousands of years, every factory that existed or has been built has eventually filled up and overflowed with its finished output. A hundred landscapes blanketed in those tiny screws. Lakes of watch hands. A mountain of crowns, glistening darkly against the rocky landscape.

Is this "high-tech waste?" Well, it's not post-consumer material, and that's vital: every item of post-consumer material is wrecked in a unique way that frustrates the glacial program of trial-and-error that Mother Nature relies on. Pre-consumer material, on the other hand, is wonderfully uniform, the perfect feedstock for Nature's lazy game of Russian roulette. By being identical and abundant, it presents a massive reservoir of free work waiting to be claimed by freaks the first individuals who are able to unlock it.

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    $\begingroup$ "the life-form will probably need to be able to precipitate metals in its biology (which I think is either rare or unheard of in reality)" .. I agree with the primary conclusion (extremely unlikely, I might actually go further and just say no not possible) but you're wrong on this point, calcium (used for bone and shell by vast numbers of organisms including every mammal on the planet) is a metal, for something you might more easily recognise as metal look to snails around deep sea vents that have non calcium metal shells. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Sep 16, 2022 at 10:15
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    $\begingroup$ Actually, there is a snail that has a shell and foot that's made out of iron: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scaly-foot_gastropod $\endgroup$
    – alexgbelov
    Sep 16, 2022 at 19:08
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    $\begingroup$ @Pelinore But metallic calcium is not used. It's calcium compounds that matter, where calcium is in its 2+ oxidation state. Metallic calcium is actually not stable in everyday conditions; it will react with oxygen in the air or with water to form calcium compounds (either the oxide or hydroxide), so it's not something you'll ever encounter in the wild. $\endgroup$
    – Hearth
    Sep 17, 2022 at 17:09

As a Sci-Fi idea, I think you are best off with nanobots designed to infiltrate, maintain and enhance neural pathways. In the future they'll be in the drinking water, much like fluoride today, as a public health measure. Perhaps they even patch genes, in order to fight cancer and other gene-based illnesses. Inevitably, they are released into the environment.

If you have fish or squids the nano-bots would push them over the threshold to consciousness, and everything is possible from there.

If you must start with single-cell organisms the path is less clear: The genetic enhancements would have to make changes leading to a multi-cellular organism. Conceivably, because the nanobots try to build and enhance neural pathways, this could be a "nerve-only" web of fibers in the water, of almost arbitrary size. Its cells would be the former microorganisms, living off oxygen and nutrients directly absorbed from the water, as before. A floating super brain.


Symbiotic Medical Waste:

My answer for this is similar for my answer to this question, What would encourage multiple animal species to evolve human features simultaneously?. In that case, it was medical nanites.

The waste would need to be very specialized and it would need to keep showing up.

  • As a side-note, most plastics can be broken down by webs of organisms into food. This does not allow them to become cyborgs, but may assist the ecosystem by being a constant supply of food to offset the harms from waste dumping.

Your ecosystem is having the biomedical waste from a medical device company dumped into it - likely for generations. The liquid waste is anti-rejection drugs, while the solid waste is self-installing medical devices. The devices work (they are the rejects with tiny imperfections or prone to failures), and keep spontaneously implanting themselves into the fauna in the ecosystem.

So now the animals in the environment are being implanted with random medical devices. Eventually, the species who are harmed by the devices will be selected against, while those that tolerate the devices survive. A few of the devices may even have some beneficial effect (like a pacemaker shocking predators, miniature artificial livers detoxifying the waste or hearing aids improving the hearing of the animals).

Finally, the company dumping the waste develops self-repairing, self-replicating medical devices powered by the metabolism of the hosts. These are a financial disaster for the company (they repair themselves and cheap clients can get self-replicating copies) so the company pulls the line from the market and dumps them into your ecosystem.

Now you have organisms who have adapted to the presence of medical devices AND devices that will spontaneously install and repair themselves in the organisms. The self-replicating programming of the devices gradually corrupts, and devices that "mutate" into useful devices for the animals replicate, while the devices that harm the survival of their "hosts" fail and are not replicated.

Thus the machines and animals become functionally symbiotic.

  1. They use electrical components to shock people.

A simple arrangement of two electrical components evolves a basic component to deliver an electrical shock. This is used to shock enemies, giving a major competitive advantage to any organism with such a modification.

  1. They evolve components to communicate with each other.

Extending on the existing adaptions to shock rivals, the organisms evolve a new configuration to add a small computing element to the arrangement, and send a signal to allies.

  1. Communication slowly increases in complexity.

Over numerous rounds of evolution they slowly incorporate more and more technology, gaining complicated methods of signalling each other, warning off rivals, mating. They slowly increase how many computer components they use, and increase the sophistication of proteins and RNA and lipids designed to interlink their components.

  1. They incorporate a bus unit.

Some very adaptible bus components which have some weak AI controls are inserted into an organism. The AI is extremely confused, but tries to organize the components according to its programming. The organisms already have extensive crosslinks between mechanical and artificial components, and the AI learns to program biology to increase compatibility and organize components.

  1. They intermix technology.

Numerous parallel evolutionary routes have evolved similar set ups, including different components. The organisms start crossbreeding and combining their bodies and machines according to the twisted desires of their DNA and the crude AIs, slowly increasing in complexity and power.


The current nature has some examples that could be used in analogy for technological waste.

Example: Phyllobates vittatus

This is a poison frog that gets its poison by eating certain insects. So if in your world, some critter found a particular waste useful, it could ingest it to benefit from its effects. This could be poison, but it could also be other kinds of benefits.

Imagine you have some form of tiny batteries. A critter that digested those could develop methods to draw electrical power from them, to power some natural electric shock attacks.

Or imagine something like "Chrysomallon squamiferum", a snail that digest sulfur compounds with the help of symbionts. Maybe the symbionts are technical in nature? (see https://morethanadodo.com/2015/04/28/the-iron-snail/ for some of the strange details). It also splits of pyrite and iron from the food and puts it on its body, looking a bit like a knights horse armor.

Or take some nautilus cephalopod and make it use microplastic to create its shell, because thats abundant. Adapting to be able to digest plastic contaminated food safely would be pretty nice for some lifeforms.

Now take it one step further. Imagine your waste contains encapsulated sensor packages. Like a scintillation detector, that gives of flashes of light, when it encounters radiation. If those are abundant, organisms might incorporate them to achieve a radiation sense if it is useful.


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