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In the universe in question, there’s another intelligent silicon-based species, with the typical member of the species being many times as intelligent as humans. With intimate knowledge of quantum mechanics and general relativity, they’ve mastered the ability to create and control warp drives that allow near-instantaneous travel to arbitrarily-distant locations, with some caveats. Warp drives don’t work near gravity wells, and the calculations required to properly operate them are so immensely complex that it takes years of mathematical training to be able to do so. Even this species’s most powerful computers can’t manage to solve the Einstein field equations fast enough to continually update the warp drive’s parameters in real time; only the most highly-trained “navigators” can figure out exactly what needs to happen and when in order to get the ship safely to its destination.

At least, their most powerful computers can’t do it. The problem comes down to solving the EFEs for some complex metrics and with other constraints, which a modern human laptop can do in at most a few second (I would know, I’ve done such things myself). Their equivalent room-sized “supercomputer” can do maybe a few hundred million operations per second, or even a few billion if it’s really pushed; compare to my very-old Xbox that can manage over a trillion operations per second easily. This has been the case for thousands of years for this civilization.

This species has access to advanced quantum physics and general relativity and has the technology to build a fleet of NTR starships and warp drives, but for some reason they can’t build computers more powerful than what we had in the 1980s. Why is that?

I’ve already considered a few things but I can’t come up with a good answer:

  • Maybe they didn’t have the right resources to build efficient transistors?
    • The life is silicon-based, there’d no doubt be a surplus of silicon, germanium, etc. semiconducting elements for them to work with
  • Maybe they just never thought that they would be useful (i.e. computers would only really be used for messaging, news, simple controls for doors and lights and locks and the like)?
    • The difficulty of warp travel almost-necessarily produces something that computers would be developed to overcome
  • Maybe environment is too harsh and computers need complex shielding to work reliably?
    • I find it hard to believe that complex and intelligent life would evolve somewhere where a computer can’t keep its memory sectors straight for five minutes, and radiation there isn’t that high anyway
  • Maybe they don't like building computers out of what's functionally their own flesh? (see comments for credit)
    • We're carbon based and we figured out how to use graphene and CNT for various applications

Notes about the species (do with these details as you will):

  • Their homeworld is a silane-rich moon of a gas giant whose very strong magnetic field protects the giant’s six moons from radiation
  • The average member of this lizard-like species stands about five meters tall and weighs around 1,500 kg; on account of stronger silicon-based musculature and gravity five times lower than on earth, they can still stand (and fly, given powerful wings and dense atmosphere)
  • Materials like carbon, silicon, phosphorus, etc. are common on the homeworld

TL;DR Why does a highly-advanced and intelligent civilization not develop advanced computers after thousands of years despite having all the expertise and resources available?

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    $\begingroup$ Maybe not a perfect fit but could not help but equate the question with the book "Mote in Gods Eye" They have the Alderson Drive ( mavericuniverse.fandom.com/wiki/Alderson_drive ) And and alien race called Moties. (Spoilers) An alien race, separated into casts of Idiot Savants. While they do presumably have computers, they make little use of them and no need to develop better ones because it's simply easier to breed more of the Motie cast you need. $\endgroup$
    – Gillgamesh
    Apr 23 at 19:19
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    $\begingroup$ Building computers out of human flesh might not go down well here on Earth. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 23 at 21:29
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    $\begingroup$ They have no cats on their home planet, so there was no drive to develop computers powerful enough to stream videos about them. For basic automation of devices, 1980's tech level is enough. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Apr 24 at 4:30
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    $\begingroup$ “The problem comes down to solving the EFEs for some complex metrics and with other constraints, which a modern human laptop can do in at most a few second ” This simply false solving the EFEs for a relatively simple dynamical system ( like a merging BH binary) takes days to weeks on modern computing clusters. $\endgroup$
    – TimRias
    Apr 24 at 6:47
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    $\begingroup$ They did develop powerful computers, but as they gave control to the computers to manage their economy, the computers started to optimize them out. So they pulled the plug and made it illegal to build anyt computer more intelligent than them. $\endgroup$
    – Florian F
    Apr 24 at 17:31

16 Answers 16

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They don't make computers because they ARE computers.

We had a lot of pressure to make very fast adding machines because our meat brains can't number good.

They never had any pressure to make non-biological computers because until this point, their own minds were powerful enough computers to solve all of the problems that WE rely on computers for.

Our word "Computer" originally referred to someone who performed computations professionally. Those only went away once technological computers surpassed the productivity of a room full of number-crunching employees.

A room for of your most computationally capable aliens is just so productive that they've never needed "Dead" computational devices.

If a huge portion of your population's workforce revolved around performing mental calculations, they'd probably take offense to the suggestion that a dead piece of metal could make them obsolete.

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    $\begingroup$ Great answer. I kinda expanded on it with the moral question whether their philosophy would allow creating intentionally brain damaged machines from what is basically their brain matter $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Apr 24 at 11:10
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    $\begingroup$ The ancient Greeks invented the steam engine and considered it a curiosity, because in its initial incarnation it was so much less efficient than human labor. The engineering work to improve it to usefulness was not put in for many centuries because no one imagined just how much improvement was possible. In the same way, because this species is so naturally good at algorithmic computation, digital computers are regarded as a curiosity. They underinvest in the technology, they never discover Moore's Law, and digital computers play no practical role in their economy. $\endgroup$ Apr 25 at 2:19
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps they have heavily invested in analog computers, having no idea that a general-purpose digital computer could actually be faster even for naturally analog problems. $\endgroup$ Apr 25 at 2:23
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    $\begingroup$ @CharlesStaats Heron's steam engine wasn't pursued because slaves could do it better. Heron's problem was simply that he couldn't do better with 1st-century metallurgy. Making good-quality iron and steel is critical for weapons and armour, so they absolutely were pushing that research - but Roman technology just never got far enough. This race do now have all the supporting technology they'd need, and have a need for it, but it takes time to get it working. So you can imagine a window of maybe 50 years where the OP's situation applies whilst they get it running. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Apr 25 at 10:40
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    $\begingroup$ This reminds me of a skit where it was aliens balking at the idea of math but the human counter questions with "then how did you make the spaceship?" to which the alien replied "You just make it it ain't that hard just gotta make it go just enough blammy to get there" where it is implied the aliens just eyeballed everything and made a intergalactic spaceship based on just "didn't measure it but it looks good enough" $\endgroup$
    – Harry Mu
    Apr 28 at 3:48
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Take a page from Dune.

Your race had advanced computers, but that was long in the past. At some point, some sort of disaster with little bearing on the story (Skynet/GlaDOS, warp demons possessing computers, a patch of quantum instability acting like an EMP to the computers' delicate processors but not "dumb" technology, etc.) caused the society to give up advanced computing technology in favor of savants.

They maintain enough computing power to automate simple things — mostly fly-by-wire systems for sub-light travel and IoT devices such as air conditioners — and can redevelop advanced systems in fairly short order, but choose not to do so.

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    $\begingroup$ Or Warhammer 40K - Abominable Intelligence. $\endgroup$ Apr 24 at 1:04
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    $\begingroup$ or Battlestar Galactica :) $\endgroup$
    – falsedot
    Apr 24 at 13:20
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    $\begingroup$ Or the Covenant in Halo, to a much lesser extent. Advanced AI are a religious taboo. $\endgroup$
    – Yay295
    Apr 24 at 19:00
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    $\begingroup$ In fact, the scenario in the question is quite similar to Dune, in which they have forgone computers due to a historical taboo and thus savant human navigators (powered by [spoiler redacted]) are responsible for charting interstellar spacecraft. $\endgroup$ Apr 25 at 18:43
  • $\begingroup$ May the downvoter please explain his or her reasoning? $\endgroup$ Apr 25 at 20:10
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They have powerful computers in their home world. But only in the home world.

The warp machinery is a very energy intensive thing, and distorting space ahead and behind the ship involves pushing a lot of gravimetric magnetic fields back and forth. The ship's interior is basically inside an EMP bomb that explodes thousands of times every second.

No delicate electric circuit, copper or silicon, can function in this environment. Heck, not even some complex circuitry would survive this intense bombardment.

But for an organic being, carbon or silicon based, this is a non-issue.

TL;DR: We put our heads inside MRI machines all the time, but not our cell phones.

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Similarily to abestrange or building on top of that answer:

Creating silicon based computers would be akin to creating artificial, dumb, enslaved life

it's not hard to see how the creation of a slave-race can be seen as morally taboo. This comes on top of abestrange's point that there is little need or gain from the idea (besides the usual gains from slavery).

However, as opposed to humans who simply enslaved people at any technological level, their type of slavery is only possivle AFTER advancing civilisation. So all it needs is for their philosophy/moral system to evolve somewhat in parallel to their tech level (and somewhat analoguous to humans) in order to utterly forbid the creation of regular silicon computers.

The moral question is akin to the one that Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" is about.

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    $\begingroup$ Life on Earth is carbon based. Does that mean, when we build bicycles and fighter jets and fly fishing rods and tennis rackets out of carbon fiber, that's akin to making those things out of dumb, enslaved life? How about all of the carbon-based plastics that we use, and the carbon-based fuels that we burn? Is it creepy when a carbon-based man gives a carbon-based woman a solid crystal of pure carbon to entice her to mate with him? $\endgroup$ Apr 24 at 19:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Ohm'sLawman uhm, none of these things think, your analogy is heavily misleading. They are things, and on top of that based on entirely different chemistry. Just because technically both are somewhere carbon based doesn't mean anything. imagine however if we were to create machines using literal dna-cell-based neurons. Because silicon-based brains would work functionally the same as computers: (slight) impurities creating electric circuits. They are a million times closer to each other than humans and bycicles. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Apr 29 at 9:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Ohm'sLawman or are you made from pure carbon like a diamond? no, you're 18.5% carbon. 18% for your brain. Sorry but I find your comment almost ridiculous. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Apr 29 at 9:53
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The high radiation environment requires multiple redundancies and constant repair of circuits. Basic computing devices are possible, but require large components, multiple CPUS whos results are compared with each other to see which answers are correct and which CPUs have been damaged and need repairing / replacing.

The environment refers to their home planet, the planets the colonize, and even their ships.

This also applies to their "biology" with "DNA" which redundant information encoding and very robust genetic repair mechanisms.

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    $\begingroup$ My immediate thought is the hardening that computers put into space need to avoid cosmic radiation single event bit flips - which is why they tend to be 20 years or more older than the technology we use otherwise. Though I suppose this doesn't explicitly stop them from having advanced computers on their planet and moons, it would limit what they could do computationally in space. $\endgroup$ Apr 23 at 21:05
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Your silicon based life forms are natural logic processors

For reasons that would be whomping hard to rationalize using evolution, your silicon-based life forms have developed minds that are natural logic processors. In effect, they're self-programmable. They are computers and thus have never had to have anything else.

NOTE THAT YOU HAVE A PROBLEM

You're trying to establish a technology dichotomy. Your species has advanced technology that permits them to build computers. That's completely unavoidable. And yet they don't have them. It's like the ancient Egyptians having the technology to make hammers, but choosing to not use them to build the pyramids.

Note that character/organizational choices are off-topic.

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looking at: https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/abstract/document/673365

Very strong magnetic field can make discovery of transistor hard or even not possible. Influence of magnetic field can make transistors hard to be usable and not possible to miniaturisation wich leads to no silicon computers at all. Lamp computers size are limited too.

Possible is a construction of mechanical computers but they will be big and heavy - can make them at orbit but taking them from planet will cost too much.

EDIT: Halls effect can be source of life to Your silicon race. Very strong magnetic field can be necessary on thier ships. This can lead to wiping all human computers when they get too close to thier ships :)

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Any technology (except a few of the foundational ones) have the potential to be just be "The Path Not Taken". This happens in real life, there is a medical technology you've probably heard of called bacteriophages. It is possible to harvest the potential of these viruses as a sort of super-antibiotics. And in fact, that's what the Soviet Union did up until the late 1980s. But for us here in the west, we passed those over and did not pursue the technology. Because we did not pursue it, we have little or no infrastructure to industrialize it, and it becomes a chicken and egg problem. It's too costly to pursue it, for too little gain. The Soviets may have had a similar problem with antibiotics, even though presumably their espionage game was sufficient to bring them the relevant details.

All that said, there may be a short story of Turtledove's that you should try to read, titled The Path Not Taken (the title undoubtedly an homage to the poem). In this story

humans end up being an outlier species that develops all sorts of technology due to our discovery of scientific principles. But all other aliens tend to discover faster-than-light and anti-gravity technology in their early iron age. One species doesn't even have iron, their spaceships are made out of bronze. It's something completely stupid, apparently, that you're very likely to discover early on... but it's so counter-intuitive and unscientific that if you do so, you never bother to learn scientific principles at all, they seem utterly wrong. Anyway, the climax of the story is when the aliens invade Earth, with cannons, muskets, and 💣-style grenades. The fighter jets sent out to dogfight their landing craft can't lock on with heat-seekers, the anti-gravity has no hot exhaust, but the radar-locked missiles work just fine. One of the captured aliens laments that if they had known what they had passed up by discovering faster-than-light, they would surely have chosen the "everything else" option instead.

The why, it might be, is a very unsatisfying "they just didn't".

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Why would someone have the capacity but not the desire?

Culture.

As a species of hyper-intelligent stone lizards, your race values personal accomplishment above all else. While they'll build tools to assist with very fine or large work, and will work in groups to accomplish tasks that require it, science is a whole different endeavour.

Let's say that the average IQ (on the human scale, of course) of your species is somewhere above 200. Their top minds are able to develop mental computation techniques that enable them to work out most tasks very quickly. They may use some equivalent of pencil and paper or an abacus, but reliance on more complex computational devices is seen as an admission of weakness. If the task is big enough to warrant it, a team will be brought in to do the computation.

Only when a problem is considered to be mundane enough not to waste an actual person on solving it, such as the long-solved and quite pedestrian problem of mapping hyperspace windows, then it's acceptable to build an automated device to do the drudge work. But here's where that cultural intellectual arrogance becomes a critical stopping point: nobody would ever consider building a machine that could challenge the computational ability of the best minds, because they'd be at best ostracised for their temerity. Nobody would fund such a development, and anybody involved in the development would be ridiculed.

Because no amount of dead material should ever be allowed to challenge a real person.

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Why aren’t there advanced computers in an advanced society?

Maybe they want the "good old days" that they read about when life was supposedly simpler. Maybe it goes further than avoiding advanced computers, to avoiding any useful computer, and is a status symbol to be seen as living the simple "off grid" type of life. Maybe starting up a space ship's flt drive and crashing into a planet, killing all on board, is seen as proof of avoiding advanced computers. Not desired, but spoken of with admiration.

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They are in a simulation, that does prevent recursion https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recursion by filtering it out of the thought process. All pathways that lead to the sims developing a simulation of there own - which then would develop a simulation - just get filtered out early on.

Turing just thinks of butterfly all the time and pascal just builds fidget spinners in his spare time. If you planing to develop "recursive" machines you develop dementia.

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    $\begingroup$ Recursion is a fundamental property of human language, and, as far as we can tell, is required for any kind of language of equal power of expression. (And if you refer strictly to the kind of recursion expressed by programming languages, that can always be replaced by iteration.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 23 at 21:29
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chomsky_hierarchy How about a lack of depth when it comes to imagine deeply nested recursion? $\endgroup$
    – Pica
    Apr 24 at 8:47
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    $\begingroup$ In computer programming, recursion and iteration are interchangeable. One can always use iteration instead of recursion, or recursion instead of iteration. (And a decent compiler will automatically replace recursion with iteration if it finds a way to do it efficiently.) One never thinks about deep recursion when programming; one always thinks about one recursion step and lets the depth take care of itself. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Apr 24 at 9:28
  • $\begingroup$ "They are in a simulation" is a great Deus-Ex-Machina answer to pretty much any plot hole in sci-fi. :) $\endgroup$
    – davido
    Apr 24 at 16:58
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP would you accept that there is a recursive uncertain physics-model that makes scientific advances ever harder $\endgroup$
    – Pica
    Apr 24 at 20:00
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They over-relied on a superior technology that then failed

An example might be:

Lazy alien software engineers replaced themselves with AI. For a few generations it was a success, long enough for the old manual software ways to be forgotten. Then a subtle self poisoning anti-pattern emerged... Working advanced tech would exist but even fairly basic computing would no longer be possible because for the last 300 years all computing was exclusively performed by a technology that has now broken irreparably.

Of course, in a few years the gap will close as they re-learn, but for right now, puny humans can do something that clever aliens can't.

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they’ve mastered the ability to create and control warp drives that allow near-instantaneous travel to arbitrarily-distant locations, with some caveats. Warp drives don’t work near gravity wells, and the calculations required to properly operate them are so immensely complex that it takes years of mathematical training to be able to do so.

This kind of answers your question. The Silicon creatures discovered early on that it is IMPOSSIBLE for a non-sapient computer to calculate the processes required for the operation of the Warp drive, and astrogation needed to fly through space at relativistic speeds. The warp drive simply will not work unless the process is performed and observed by a consciousness that collapses its quantum state continuously. Without a constant conscious operator, the Warp drive remains an inert Schrodinger's Cat. It takes a conscious observation to "tell" the Warp Drive that "yes, in fact we have instantly traveled to point B, and are not at point A anymore, or in indeterminate state between the two".

Since Silicon creatures had mastered the quantum physics, they do not need computers more advanced than required to present the user with a collapsible set of "quantum questions" which the user then solves achieving leaps in quantum computation impossible to any non-sapient computer, no matter how advanced. Once you master this to the point that warp-travel and astrogation is possible, everything else is trivial.

(yes, it is essentially magic).

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  • $\begingroup$ I'd like to clear up a common misconception. Schrodinger's cat has nothing to do with a conscious observer. the experiment proves that things in a closed system remain undecided until they effect something outside. Schrodinger's cat implies that NO information can escape the box because any information escaping the box will trigger the state collapse. the only thing in the universe that is "information tight" is an event horizon, so I kinda doubt that such effects would play a part on a warp drive, and if they did, the pilot would be like the cat. $\endgroup$
    – Xan
    May 20 at 13:34
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Not sure if it would fit your story, but someone already mentioned culture in general, I'd be more specific: religion. Since they are highly intelligent they foresee that developing the tech further would eventually lead to AI/machine sentience which they consider a twisted mockery of their own existence (due to both being silicon-based). While going down this path would require you to build a consistent religion, it would also add some extra depth to it.

(Also having a bunch of heretics trying to build computers and smuggling powerful chips around while being chased around by the church tickles my fancy.)

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  • $\begingroup$ As it turns out, this actually does fit the rest of the world (I've asked a few other questions about this universe in particular; I wonder if you can figure out which ones they are) $\endgroup$ Apr 30 at 12:27
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You mention carbon, silicon, phosphorus being common on their world, but one thing you didn't mention was any metal. If they were on a planetmoon with very little access to metal of any kind, it's not unreasonable that they'd have difficulty developing electricity, let alone computers. That wouldn't stop their society developing in other ways, though notably it would also be a significant hinderance to making the tools of war, so perhaps they'd be a relatively peaceful race, which just never got past the stage of wooden or stone tools simply because those were the only materials readily available in sufficient quantities. Granted, those would be very sophisticated and advanced wooden and stone tools compared to what we think of when we hear that term, but the best stone you can come up with isn't going to help with the development of electronics without conducting metal along with it. (Sure, you could maybe make semi-conductors, but semi-conductors without, you know, regular garden-variety conductors, are pretty much useless.)

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They just didn't invent them

There's a tendency to believe that technological development is a single path or continuum that we proceed along, and that for every civilisation, that the measure of how advanced they are is just a matter of what point they are on this line, be that stone-age, iron-age, medieval, rennaisance, industrial age, etc.

But this is almost certainly not the case. Different technologies advance at different rates depending on the incentives there are to develop them, which are different for every civilisation.

If we didn't have things like computer games, streaming high-quality movies, the Internet itself, then the common consumer wouldn't be interested in computers, and computers would be nowhere near as advanced as they are now. There just wouldn't be the incentive to keep building better and better computers without the capitalist system and the massive global market. We'd still be a bit closer to what you see NASA using in the original moon landing. And we probably wouldn't even have those if it wasn't for events like WW2 and the Cold War.

Remember, quantum mechanics and relativity were discovered before computers. And without the specific market forces we have which causes pretty much everyone in the world to want better and better computers, they'd most likely be a niche product that haven't advanced much - the incentive to put the huge amount of work and expense into improving them just wouldn't be there.

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  • $\begingroup$ How would there not be an incentive to invest in computers for a society interested in interplanetary travel? They'd need to do calculations on orbits, planetary mass, and so much more to safely navigate. Then is the calculations needed to build any spacecraft with precision. Just keeping track of the expenses for materials and labor would drive them to want computing devices of some sort. The computers may be mechanical rather than electronic, or analog than digital, but computing devices of all sorts would likely be highly valued. $\endgroup$
    – MacGuffin
    Apr 30 at 10:28
  • $\begingroup$ Because maybe only a relatively small group of people need to work out these calculations. Only a specialised industries will need to use the computers to do the things you say. They aren't going to be able to sell them to hundreds of millions of people in order to recoup the huge costs of the R&D that goes into making them. There aren't going to be the CEOs of microprocessor companies continuously thinking, "if we could make it just 10% faster, then we'd be market leaders and make millions in profit", and then trying to out-do each other $\endgroup$
    – komodosp
    Apr 30 at 13:28
  • $\begingroup$ My point is though, you can argue that there might still be an incentive, it's enough for the OP's purposes that - given the different needs and interests of his civilisation - that it's possible there isn't, and that their technological development simply took a different trajectory to ours. $\endgroup$
    – komodosp
    Apr 30 at 13:37

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