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David just bought a $1500 grand computer, he put the parts together himself. He was about to play some games on it and aliens just yoinked it to study. Without even looking at David or the biology of planet earth all they took was a computer and did nothing else. (they also took the monitor and all the other essentials like mouse and keyboard)

What the aliens know: The gravity of earth and it contains a large amount of life.

Intelligent life on earth exist but knows almost nothing about it beyond that fact.

This is a device that a lot of Earthlings have some better some worst.

They do not have access to our internet, they just have what was installed on the computer itself.

My question essentially is how much could they find out about humans from consumer grade technology? Biology? Culture? or could they even tell its consumer grade or would they assume this is the most advance we have?

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    $\begingroup$ If David had already used the computer for its actual purpose, the aliens might learn a lot from the HDD about human anatomy and the many ways humans mate. $\endgroup$ Aug 19, 2023 at 12:51
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    $\begingroup$ Without knowing everything about David, every answer is correct. David was a biologist who mostly telecommuted for his work, and has tons of research papers on his hard drive. So if they learn David’s language, they glean biology. If they can’t read, they glean nothing. You absolutely need to describe both David, what he uses his computer for, and the aliens. Since they don’t speak or read any human language per your post, likely they glean nothing at all. They won’t even be able to turn it on until they understand our electrical system. Still VTC. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Aug 19, 2023 at 17:32
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    $\begingroup$ If the aliens truly do not know anything other than the gravitational acceleration at the surface of Earth, then the only things they can surely learn is that humans have several appendices under good motor control, and that humans are not much less than one meter long and not much more than three meters long; that's because the device seems to have lots of push buttons arranged in rows, and the device would be inconveniently sized for a species too small or too large. Other than that, it all depends on how similar the aliens are to us. VTC as needing vastly more detail. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 19, 2023 at 19:04
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    $\begingroup$ @John: You are assuming that they can see the image on the screen. Why would you assume that? The question needs to add detail about the aliens. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 19, 2023 at 19:06
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    $\begingroup$ It’s worth reminding that we didn’t glean anything from our own ancient civilizations even with written manuals. We have entire superstructures such as the pyramids and the Angkor Empire cities without any idea how they were built. If Napoleon never found the Rosetta Stone we still wouldn’t know what those wires Egyptian pictures. meant. A computer is useless without knowing how it works. They wouldn’t see “mouse” or “buttons.” They would glean “it’s an advanced civilization.” Full stop. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Aug 20, 2023 at 1:59

5 Answers 5

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Our tech level, +/- 100 years, from a CPU alone

A relatively decent proxy for technological advancement is the smallest piece of matter you can simply and precisely manipulate.

It requires all kinds of understanding - you need a way of looking at that matter, you need to understand the physics around it. How small you can accurately measure is also a good proxy, and is required for accurately manipulating it.

So, aliens should be able to deduce lots of things from the CPU:

  1. how small an object we can manipulate - a modern CPU has structure down to 5-7nm - from this, you could reason we had advanced past optics, and had some way of seeing individual atoms. In addition, to make a machine that works, we'd need an understanding of quantum mechanics, as effects become noticable at that scale

  2. how good we are at materials science - cpus require rare metals and extremely pure silicon, both of which are tough for us to obtain. Victorian era people would have had no chance. Future people are likely to have hit the limit at which these techniques are useful, and switched to something else entirely.

Even if they have technology working from an entirely different place, manipulating atom sized things will always require certain tech, and the tech chain to make that possible.

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  • $\begingroup$ As it's a new computer, it is more likely to have a 7nm (intel) or 5nm (amd) $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Aug 20, 2023 at 17:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Trioxidane - to my shame as a tech geek, you are of course right $\endgroup$
    – lupe
    Aug 20, 2023 at 21:38
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    $\begingroup$ What's probably more telltale is that there are billions of these small structures on the CPU, virtually flawless. And the RAM has way more. Even more on the GPU and its GDDR. That pretty much rules out electron beam lithography and other slow processes. It's all mass produced using EUV lithography. $\endgroup$
    – MSalters
    Aug 21, 2023 at 7:10
  • $\begingroup$ @MSalters - I think there's a good possibility, looking at archeology, that aliens would use a different technique than us - what wouldn't change is that we can, in a consistent, accurate way, manipulate matter at 5nm. That's probably a similar difficulty for any sentient species, no matter what route their tech takes. $\endgroup$
    – lupe
    Aug 21, 2023 at 7:18
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    $\begingroup$ @JohannesD - I actually thought about this in my answer - I thought about electric charge, and how the conventions are backwards - it's possible to make useful machines with a flawed understanding of the science. But I figured a flawed understanding that would let you make large semiconductors would fall apart as you get to a really small scale $\endgroup$
    – lupe
    Aug 21, 2023 at 9:47
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  1. humans have tentacles or fingers that can interact with the peripherals.
  2. there is at least one symbolic language on the planet
  3. assuming they can launch music or video, what wavelengths of sound and light we perceive.
  4. we are intelligent enough to create devices such as cpu's
  5. we have the ability to manufacture plastics and metals
  6. we have knowledge of electromagnetics (disk drive)
  7. whatever else they can learn by using trial and error interacting with the device
  8. they need a reliable internet connection
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    $\begingroup$ If they can actually interpret the system, they can learn a lot about our language, as modern operating systems contain complex databases of the linguistic systems of large numbers of languages. (How do you capitalise an i in Turkish? Its different from every other latin language and your computer has software for that). $\endgroup$ Aug 20, 2023 at 23:51
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    $\begingroup$ If the aliens can't figure out that it needs to be powered from 120/240V, 60/50Hz AC power then they won't be able to boot it up. That would be a crucial step. Getting that step wrong (depending on what they tried) could destroy the machine and prevent further experiments. $\endgroup$
    – user4574
    Aug 21, 2023 at 4:58
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    $\begingroup$ @user4574: Figuring out that it works on electricity is trivial (metal connector). Opening the case, it's easy to observe the Power Supply Unit. (and they'll deduce the modular design - a key engineering observation). The role of the PSU is fairly obvious from isolation, as well as the fact that the input voltage is somewhere in the 50-500V range, The use of transformers tells them it runs on AC, somewhere in the 10-100 Hz range. With these bounds, a few simple measurements will get them the correct operational parameters without much risk. $\endgroup$
    – MSalters
    Aug 21, 2023 at 6:51
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    $\begingroup$ The Monitor and Loudspeakers alone would reveal a lot about our sensory organs. Not only the preferred wavelenghts of light and sound, also the relevant amplitudes and field of view. Together with mouse/keyboard you could probably also infer the size of a human. Having two modes of input possibly also infer two arms/hands. $\endgroup$
    – Falco
    Aug 21, 2023 at 8:21
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    $\begingroup$ @ MSalters "The use of transformers tells them it runs on AC, somewhere in the 10-100 Hz range". Well actually it may interest you to know that 500W~1000W 60Hz power transformers are quite large and expensive (like 30 lbs, $300). Therefore, PC power supplies actually chop the 60Hz into a higher frequency (often several kHz). So, looking at the transformer itself would be quite misleading regarding the input power frequency. $\endgroup$
    – user4574
    Aug 22, 2023 at 4:20
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They would be able to sequence the genome of humans, some species we eat, and some micro-organisms we are hosts to, from hair, skin flakes, and crumbs in the keyboard

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Intro: Cyberdyne Systems Scenario

I believe that just as Cyberdyne Systems from the 'Terminator' series was able to reverse-engineer the future's advanced AI technology from a single Terminator CPU, potentially accelerating humanity's progression to a machine-dominated apocalypse, the aliens could similarly extrapolate a wealth of information about human civilization from a single consumer-grade computer.

I will assume as a space-faring civilizations they know how to use tools and understand the basic principles of electricity, allowing them to turn on the computer. I will also assume that they can slowly work out the language, as any space-faring civilization will by necessity be developed in the area of communication themselves.

Here are some things the aliens could infer about humanity from a computer:

  1. Ergonomics and Senses: The design of the keyboard and mouse suggests the number of fingers /appendages we have, the approximate size of our hands, and possibly our posture when we use such devices. The monitor's size and resolution might hint at our visual acuity and how we perceive colors and wavelengths. This along with audio devices allow them to understand the range at which we normally hear, and our reliance on visual and audio cues to interact with the world.

  2. Cultural Insights: Depending on the content stored on the computer, they could gain insights into our languages, art, music, and other forms of expression. Of course, depending on what David is interested in, they may get a different glimpse into what human culture is like.

  3. Technology: The presence of silicon-based microchips,the types of metals used, and the intricacy of the circuitry gives them an idea of our advancements in microelectronics. By necessity we need an understanding of Quantum mechanics, lithography, materials science, thermodynamics, and economies of scale. They will also be able to deduce based on this our understanding of physics, chemistry, and materials science. If they can decipher a part of the language, they will also quickly understand that this one computer has the potential to connect to the internet, there are others like it.

  4. Environmental Impact: The use of plastics and certain chemicals might suggest our reliance on fossil fuels and could hint at environmental challenges we face.

  5. Biology: If there are any games, software, or documents related to human 'biology', they could gain insights into our anatomy, physiology, and possibly even our understanding of genetics and medicine.

  6. Pace of Advanement: While computers seem advanced to us, it might be primitive to them. They may see that we are taking the first steps into technological advancement. Or, conversely, they might be surprised at how advanced it is for a species they perceive as less developed.They will not assume this is the pinnacle of our technology, but rather one piece of a larger technological landscape, due to its ability to connect to a network, the variety of materials necessary in its construction, and the evidence of economies of scale.

Conclusion: Mostly Harmless

Just like in the terminator series, a single piece of technology can offer significant clues about our physical form, technological prowess, culture, and challenges. Just by analyzing the combination of materials necessary in its creation, as well as the cultural documents, and its ability to connect to some sort of network, the aliens can gauge the level of our cultural and technological advancement.

As for the alien's take on Earth after analyzing the device? Perhaps they'd conclude: "A curious species with an intriguing mix of art, technology, and plastic. Mostly harmless."

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  • $\begingroup$ With regards to visual wavelengths, its actually less useful than it appears. Computers technology makes heavy use of the fact that humans are trichromats. So by looking at the monitor they can tell that we can perceive 3 wavelengths specifically, but beyond that, only through inference from the color calibration systems. The colors used on the physical components, especially in a gaming PC, might actually be more useful. $\endgroup$ Aug 21, 2023 at 0:01
  • $\begingroup$ By comparison, the audio system will give them not only the range of our hearing, but which ranges we find specifically significant though analysis of psychoacoustic based compression codec software. $\endgroup$ Aug 21, 2023 at 0:01
  • $\begingroup$ Keyboard is only telling that we can press those few cm squares with the required force. Mouse tells we have ability to click and move the mouse. If the computer has default OS installation without any games or whatever, aliens could figure out we have at least 3-point press at once (ctrl+alt+del and other combinations). But something like 3 octopus tentacles seems pretty plausible to me. $\endgroup$ Aug 21, 2023 at 7:33
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    $\begingroup$ The mere existence of a thing recognizable as a computer also immediately tells them that we have grokked theoretical aspects of computation, ie. that we understand the concept of programmability and universal computation, and how to implement a universal computing machine using a very large number of simple logic elements. They'd probably also infer that the binary software installed on the computer is written by a machine translating from a higher-level symbolic language. $\endgroup$
    – JohannesD
    Aug 21, 2023 at 9:25
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    $\begingroup$ @JohannesD They don't even need to infer the existence of such languages. The typical current base OS comes with at least 2 compilers (Javascript, and GLSL). If its windows, you likely have most of a C# compiler in the C# standard library. They only need to infer that one was used for the compiled code. $\endgroup$ Aug 21, 2023 at 9:47
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They could infer Language, written language, a Knowledge of Maths and Physics, some inferences about our ability for fine-motor control.

The issue is, that without any applications installed (you indicated it's just the base OS installed) that really limits what they could glean.

However, if you allow for some applications to be installed and perhaps a little bit of Web Browsing history, the amount that could be learned increases exponentially.

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    $\begingroup$ I personally disagree any of this could be discovered without first having something of our language to act as a corpus. It’s not realistic to assume they could extract any intelligence from it because they don’t know how to power it up. “Intelligent life on earth exist but knows almost nothing about it beyond that fact.” Assuming David hadn’t used an SSD, they need the disk platter - but would they know it’s important? Would they ever find the platter? Peripherals would be completely meaningless. This answer assumes quite a bit more initial comprehension than the OP offers. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Aug 19, 2023 at 22:15
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    $\begingroup$ A typical base OS has a lot of information. Locale databases, timezone databases, CA databases, fonts, at least one to two compilers, audio and video codecs, encryption software, network stacks, driver databases. $\endgroup$ Aug 21, 2023 at 0:06
  • $\begingroup$ @user1937198 plus so much text of UI-Elements, Error Messages, Help articles.... $\endgroup$
    – Falco
    Aug 21, 2023 at 8:31
  • $\begingroup$ Doesn't the question say "he was about to play some games on it" which implies that he had those games installed? $\endgroup$ Aug 21, 2023 at 17:38

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