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Similar to the Three Body Problem, humanity has learned it will soon be attacked by an advanced alien civilization. Humanity as it currently stands does not have the technology to withstand them. They will arrive soon.

I have a time machine capable of going back in time around 50 years, to the 1970s. I am tasked with taking back a single piece of technology, with the goal of rapidly speeding up the pace of development of humanity in order to combat the alien species.

My question is, which single technological advancement from the last fifty years will have the maximum impact on our technological development as a species?

This is assuming we don't blow ourselves up in the process.

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    $\begingroup$ Question: why exactly is our current tech level insufficient? Not enough bang? Not accurate enough? Not fast enough? Not protected enough? As this more than anything shapes the answer. $\endgroup$ Commented May 31 at 6:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Pelinore -- From a certain perspective, all inventions are just a kind of stone hammer. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented May 31 at 9:59
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    $\begingroup$ @elemtilas it can't be reduced quite that far, there are other non percussive scientific discoveries from which numerous inventions were derived that can't reasonably be contained within the essential principles of the humble hammer (stone or otherwise), but the underlying point is (partially) accepted in principle, if not the entirety of the hyperbole inherent in the manner with which it was delivered ;) $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented May 31 at 10:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Ucinorn How does your time travel work? just curious, it doesn't impact the question I think .. is it the many worlds time travel trope where any change to the past (including simply arriving there) causes an alternate timeline where you appeared from the future were you did? .. will your time travelers just be doing a Rick and Morty running away from Cronenberg world to a new pristine one leaving everyone left behind in their original timeline to their unaltered fate? ;) $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented May 31 at 11:28
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    $\begingroup$ The problem with this question is that when one goes back 50 years to try to change technological history, that person has to argue against all the economic reasons to keep doing what we did. That person has to convince hundreds of investors and businesspeople that there is a threat 50 years in the future and change their investments. That won't happen. We have the same problem with climate change today. Investors only want quick returns and don't care about 50 years in the future. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Commented May 31 at 14:37

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Wikipedia and lots of technical data/schematics on a laptop.

The scope of the technical information available there (semiconductors, semiconductor LASERs, fuels, materials-science, chemistry, genetics etc... The actual batteries of the laptop, semiconductors etc..

Plus of course, the certain knowledge that the cold-war would be great for tech - and most importantly, that aliens are coming and cooperation internationally without all that money wasted on posturing and spying (and sabotage) could result in a serious technological boom.

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    $\begingroup$ When are the aliens arriving then? at the rate the quality of the data online is degrading we'd best hope that it's soon or that might conceivably do more damage than good, won't be long now before all you'll get on a search is paid adds for products derived from junk and pop science loosely related to your search string, and if you use Google as the search engine you won't be able to scroll past those to find anything real because they appear to have initiated a hard limit on the number of search results you can get ;D $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented May 31 at 10:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Pelinore You actually can't bring back Google. Google is a massive cluster of networked data centers and hardware that is essentially impossible to bring back. What you do is download Wikipedia, Science Journals, etc. All the other crap is not hard to exclude. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented May 31 at 13:16
  • $\begingroup$ I wonder how the US and USSR would react if they read the story of the one man who stopped nuclear war in a Soviet submarine during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I bet international cooperation would be augmented, one way or the other. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 1 at 1:58
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    $\begingroup$ One problem with bringing back modern tech specs/info is you still need to build it, often with entire industries. Designs for a modern-spec processor would likely be to 1970 what designs for a WWI tank would be to Napoleon: not out of their imagination, but still decades out of their reach. $\endgroup$
    – GB540
    Commented Jun 1 at 13:57
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The time machine

The army with a time machine will win any fight.

You have a time machine. It exists in your present. That is what you take back. They don't even have to study the time machine, they just have to use it to win the conflict.

I recommend that you also bring back some Nacho Cheese Doritos, for your own snacking pleasure. They don't get invented until 1972, and two years without NCDs is poor thanks for helping to save humanity.

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    $\begingroup$ @Ucinorn --- Too late! You can't make the time machine off limits now, since you've already gotten that as an answer! $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented May 31 at 5:06
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    $\begingroup$ Technically yes i can: if you look closely, i specified this: "which single technological advancement from the last fifty years". I dont think a time machine has been invented in the last fifty years has it? $\endgroup$
    – Ucinorn
    Commented May 31 at 5:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Ucinorn -- You also specified that you have the time machine now. Not that it matters: the answer has been given, so you can no longer edit your question to deny the use of the time machine. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented May 31 at 5:12
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    $\begingroup$ "bring back some Nacho Cheese Doritos, for your own snacking pleasure. They don't get invented until 1972" in 1972 you say? Don't worry about it then, you'll be fine, It's 2024 now, you'll arrive in 1974, 2 years after they get 'invented' ;) $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented May 31 at 11:56
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    $\begingroup$ Plus, the time machine was obviously invented 50 years ago, when it popped into existence with Tom driving it. $\endgroup$
    – g s
    Commented May 31 at 16:41
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Regardless of what you decide to take with you you'd be better off waiting until after the conflict, the battle reports are going to be worth far more than a technological edge. I would suggest that current computer chip printing techniques, short cutting Moore's Law by five decades, would be a boost bigger than anything else I can think of, with the dates given, off the top of my head.

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    $\begingroup$ Tactically sound. I wonder that the OP didn't state specifically when they're arriving. $\endgroup$ Commented May 31 at 7:33
  • $\begingroup$ Not just the battle reports, the tech and it's specs together with any captured samples would be invaluable too, you get a whole extra 50 years to retro engineer their tech and develop counters to all of it that way as well. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented May 31 at 10:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Pelinore Knowing exactly where and when they were going to arrive trumps any tech, with that data you could throw a few sacks of ball-bearings across their pre-deceleration burn route into the system and call it a day. I'm not saying don't take the alien gear if you've got it, I'm saying you may not want to risk staying long enough to possibly get samples, you might also possibly get vapourised. If you're jumping out ahead of the attack run get the arrival data and get out. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Commented May 31 at 10:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Pelinore Unfortunately the question does say a time machine and one piece of tech, which does simplify some things while also limiting options that would otherwise be extremely useful and effective. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Commented May 31 at 10:42
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    $\begingroup$ So a one shot single use time travel is mandated in the question? maybe I should have skimmed it a little less aggressively then ;) $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented May 31 at 10:45
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The information about aliens attacking

The very fact that there is an impending DOOM might alone shift the course of history hard enough to stimulate scientific growth everywhere. Also this might cause total unification of humanity, remember, in 1970s the worls is split harder than it is today, also there's an ongoing war in Vietnam which doesn't do good to either side (not to mention USSR won that one strategically. Should you end up on that side of the world, you might not have a chance to influence anything at all). But normally this fact alone won't do a thing, so you'll need some interesting stuff.

An Amazon Snowball with samples of mini-tech from all the 50Y timespan

This truck is IMHO the best device to pick with you, as its major value is in the sheer amount of information it could carry; IIRC it could deliver petabytes per travel, also it is equipped with enough equipment to create visual representation of all that info. So, get this truck, stuff it full with Wiki, schematics, Youtube history videos, other both scientific and popular data, including what was secret in 1970s in every country but has since been declassified, probably some compromise to every future government leader just to make them listen, then also add a couple of various technical devices (hard disks form 80s, 90, 2000s would already give a lot to study, and there are more) and material samples (2D superconductors, graphene, some top secret alloys available) as scientific material to help them accelerate their own science. Maybe also ask for asteroid sample of Hayabusa as a means of saying "hey we've been to an asteroid and back; we still can defend ourselves from aliens".

There is no single technology that's caused the major advance

There is a phrase in other answers "we're running on 4 cylinders when we could run on all 8" - I'm saying we're running on one cylinder while we could run on 8, mainly because humanity is divided by governments keeping their secrets, and should this effort at least help those folks in '70s to at last start sharing scientific data, this alone could speed up science more than even the entire data cache taken together.

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  • $\begingroup$ People as a default, prefer to put in a minimum effort. We only run on 8 cylinders when we have someone to beat. While unity helps us share ideas better, humans push way harder to excel when we are in competition than when we are united. All those scientists of the 1970s forward were working tirelessly to outperform one another. It is not enough to meet last year's benchmark. If the other guys come up with something new, your goal immediately shifts to do even better. For example, when I worked for Microsoft we had to turn a 4 year goal into a 6 month goal because Apple beat us to $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented May 31 at 14:13
  • $\begingroup$ market on something. It took a huge restructuring, the creation of new tools that we did not even think we needed before, and a lot of 70 hour work weeks, but we hit our goal in 5 months. If Apple and Microsoft were one big happy tech family, neither group would have been in any rush and that product would have taken many more years for anyone to care enough to roll out, and a lot of the innovations that made the new goal possible would have never happened. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented May 31 at 14:13
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Captured alien artefacts

Wait for the aliens to attack and, the moment they arrive, trap as much of their hardware as you can in the time bubble you will send back to the 70's. Add yourself to the package. On arrival, look for the local Miles Dyson and convince investors to found a company, Cyberdyne (say), for him to play with your alien junk while you work at staying out of mental institutions.

Bonus points if the great technical success of Cyberdyne was the nucleosynthesis of {purple kryptonite | vibranium | unobtaininum | younameitium} and, after the aliens defeated us in spite of the miracle stuff, it turns out they'd only come to investigate the presence of its spectral rays in the Earth's atmosphere.

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Toxic BioSludge


Aliens have zero immunity to our bugs. Heck, we just about have immunity to our own bugs! Just set the time machine to portal mode and start carting all the polluted, toxic and microbial waste you can find!


Turn this sludge into bioweapons and let the aliens eat toxic soup! They won't last long. Of course, we might not last long either if we get enough of their bugs, but at least we're on home turf!

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  • $\begingroup$ Nice answer, but there's very little reason to assume the aliens share our biology, or are been carbon-based. $\endgroup$
    – Ucinorn
    Commented May 31 at 5:22
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    $\begingroup$ Bio-Weapons were well underway in the 1960s. $\endgroup$ Commented May 31 at 6:05
  • $\begingroup$ @Ucinorn --- There's no reason to assume they don't. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented May 31 at 9:55
  • $\begingroup$ @TheDemonLord true, but to reliably develop something that works on the aliens you'll (probably) need some tissue samples, a whole corpse would be nice, so if he said 'an alien body' rather than BioSludge he might have had something ;) $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented May 31 at 11:32
  • $\begingroup$ Bugs have evolved substantially over the last 50 years - just our intrepid hero going back in time and coughing on someone themselves might wipe out the human race! $\endgroup$
    – fdomn-m
    Commented May 31 at 17:10
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A personal computer

A computer can contain an immense amount of data, and the powerful hardware on it allows for advanced modelling of technology to allow for rapid development.

The major world governments would ideally give you secret contacts to higher up officials in governments, and you would use your laptop to help multiple nations rapidly develop and warn them of the threat. There are two developments that are key to rapid space development.

Nuclear technology and space travel technology.

Our current technology is advanced enough to do space exploration, and our nuclear technology is good enough to power spaceships. Due to safety concerns, nuclear technology has not been put on spaceships, but with aliens, safety is a lower concern. By the 80s you could hopefully see mass colonization of the solar system and over the following decades with the technology from your computer they could hopefully colonize every major area of the solar system.

Then, when aliens arrive you can nuke them with masses of spaceships. While our technology may be much more primitive, we can outmass them in our solar system and overwhelm them with brute numbers. They presumably don't have time travel, so their ftl tech is presumably less advanced and moving a large fleet into the solar system is hard for them.

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  • $\begingroup$ I agree that there's no readily apparent or identifiable plausible reason to limit yourself to just one "invention", but that's what the OP is asking for, the one invention that would have most impact .. this ^ is a perfectly sensible & obvious response, "why choose one when you can load all of the blueprints, diagrams, instructions and science papers for every scientific discovery, invention and innovation of the past 50 years onto a lap top and take it all back?" .. but maybe label it as a frame challenge? $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented May 31 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ I am taking back a single technological advancement, a computer. OP didn't say you can't use your advancement when you go back in time. If they meant that, they should have clarified. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Commented May 31 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ "I am taking back a single technological advancement" No you are not, you are using disingenuous linguistic sophistry to sidestep the one invention stipulation and take them all back ;p .. you don't need to employ disingenuous linguistic sophistry though, as a frame challenge it's a perfectly good answer [ponders] but I appreciate how a little disingenuous linguistic sophistry is entertaining at times, so maybe you don't want to spoil that? ;) sorry if I have ;p $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented May 31 at 14:48
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Bring back a piece of the Berlin Wall.

Show the powers that be that hostile ETs are the real threat, not the Soviets, and NASA should be kept funded pedal-to-the-metal.

THAT would change history.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm reminded of a short edit titled "NASA if it had the funding of the US military", and it was awesome. Sounds good to me. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 1 at 2:03
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Equal Rights Amendment

For most of the past 50 years, literally half the population has been prevented from reaching its full potential, because of sexism. Probably every part of our society could be far more advanced if we'd been firing on all 8 cylinders for the last century instead of just 4 of them. Half the productivity. Half the intellect. Far less than half the imagination. Most of society's efforts wasted on building up the wealth and egos of a handful of male tyrants, many of whom we're still waiting for Death to free us from.

We have had multiple opportunities to remedy that problem, and declined them all. We still decline them.

Law is technology. It's not a gadget with buttons, but it is technology. Law as a concept, but also every individual law is itself a piece of technology.

Today's lawyers have had generations to re-think the campaign to grant half the population rights that are equal to the rights of the other half. The courts of the 1950s were vastly better than today's courts. If you take today's marvelous law back to the 1970s, and back it up with evidence and reason, I bet they'd buy it. Also, you can tell them that aliens are coming and we'll need all hands on deck to survive.

Go back in time and double our science and industry.

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    $\begingroup$ Gotta disagree, even after the digital revolution - which was well after equal rights legislation - the overwhelming majority of radical advancements were made by Men. $\endgroup$ Commented May 31 at 6:05
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    $\begingroup$ @TheDemonLord Without supporting facts, that sounds an awful lot like survivor bias and cherry-picking. And misogyny. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Commented May 31 at 6:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Tom - Okay - Linus Torvalds, Bill Gates, Tim Berners Lee, Bram Cohen, Gabe Newell, Founders of Youtube, Google, Founders of Wikipedia, Founder of Stack Exchange - I could go on and on - Survivor bias or not - these are the people that have radically shaped the digital world - and they are all Men. This is not to say there hasn't been some titans of IT that are Women - but apart from say Admiral Grace Hopper (whose contributions were during this time period anyway) it is slim pickings. $\endgroup$ Commented May 31 at 7:09
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    $\begingroup$ If you're talking about enforced DEI that shows every evidence of being damaging to the quality of any industry or companies 'participants' as you hire and appoint by quota rather than the best available which can only statistically lower the overall quality you would have otherwise had .. if you just mean equality of opportunity that would be useful, but extremely unlikely to be more useful than a bunch of other alternative things to take back. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented May 31 at 11:24
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    $\begingroup$ -1 These Laws have historically had opposite impacts from thier intended effects. When you penalize someone for discriminatory hiring practices, you actually increase the liability of interviewing and hiring minorities and make it better for HR to simply lose those job applications. Less risky to hire a Chaz that I can fire at will than a Karen who will sue me if I ever have to. Equal opportunities can only come from cultural changes, not legal ones. If you want to optimize society, you need to stop the Laws that try to force equity and focus on the cultural events that promote equality. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented May 31 at 13:47
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First: A bit of technology that might give companies a leg up in 1974... perhaps a 32 bit CPU. The 8-bit CPUs were on the cusp of being created, and you can bet that some engineers were already thinking ahead. This would potentially give them up to 10 years' jump on technology.

Say, a 486.

(Maybe a Pentium would help them out even more?)

Second: An alternate guess might be the Blue LED. This was finally discovered around 1995. Bringing that into 1974 would bring white-light and RGB LED displays faster. It might improve fiber-optic data transmission rates, which could prove an early boon to telecommunications. It would also generally multiply the density of optical information storage -- using a blue laser instead of infrared means the optical media in your Discman is Blu-Ray instead of a lowly CD.

Hmmm. That might also advance laser science, which might have good anti-alien applications.

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Single technology is not enough - let them know they are coming

When I approached this question, my first thought was the designs of the latest microchip production unit. Making chips with smaller internals has a huge avalanche effect. They are more powerful and more energy efficient. These two attributes help enormously with making anything these days. Via simulations, mock ups and pure raw processing power to calculate things you can simply advance faster. Not to mention, the sharing of information goes faster and faster. This way you could increase nearly every field by decades in shorter times.

It would probably not be so easy though. Having a printer means nothing if you don't know what to print. Both your hardware and software of the 70's is simply not on par with the raw power of what you would be creating. You can get some benefits, sure, but it will still take time for all the fields to advance and have proper advances.

The software and hardware offer another problem though. It simply isn't good enough for such a precision machine. You need an accuracy unprecedented of that time. So you can't create the machine in the first place. They might find some ingenious solutions and it will still advance technology by leaps and bounds in the long run, but it will not be the miracle you expect.

And this is probably true for many advancements. You can't build the Internet without proper hardware and software. You will always need a cocktail of advancements for true leaps and bounds. Even if you introduce the Internet to the 70's, they might just use it to look if the coffee pot in the break room still has coffee. The true power is hidden until people get used to it and the ideas are gradually build out. Give a person in the 70's a smart phone that works and can use it to do anything you can do today, and how well could they even find the weather app? Would they truly appreciate the full capabilities of what it can do? Would they even be able to turn it on and swipe to the apps?

I've focused on chips and the Internet, as much of the further advancements flow from them. However, it isn't unique to this field. New photovoltaic cells? Carbon nanotubes? Fusion technology? None of them on their own will revolutionise the world. Even with all the plans in hand you need a lot of research, manpower and culture shifts to truly utilise it.

They will die, unless...

That is why the answer is to let every nation and person know, beyond a doubt, that they will all die if they do not act. We've seen a few rare instances where everyone comes together to prevent a goal, like banning CFK's. If the whole world knows beyond a doubt they will die otherwise, they can start working together to this single goal. If you can convince them, this will be the single best way to improve technology. People inventing new technologies that might stave off this doom become superstars. The money for such research will be, for want of a better word, 'unlimited'. The prevailing culture can be that preventing this doom is of the utmost importance, making the amount of people taking advantage of yhe situation a smaller percentage, as well as giving people who can contribute a better chance to develop.

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