Lets say humans from an alternate reality find a modern day laptop floating out in space and bring it back down to to study it. The humans are a little less advanced than us and are very curious what all those different shaped holes in the side of the laptop do, so they decide to make their own USB and try to plug it in to see what happens.

The question

After opening it up and examining the slots, could they reverse engineer a USB and plug it in and based on how behind their computers are would it allow them to do anything meaningful?

What would be the procedure for interacting with the laptop, would they open it up first or touch keys etc..

Additional info

  • The humans are 20 years behind us in technology
  • The humans have a different language and different computers that are 20 years behind ours
  • They use different ports than our computers and different key layouts , this computer is completely new to them
  • Their computers operate on the same principles ours do, electricity etc..
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I agree with the negative answers already posted. But I think I would be of a different opinion for an older suitcase computer (they didn't fit on laps) from the 1990s. The protocols on a serial port were much simpler, and over the modem port, you could hear individual byte phrases go by at 300 baud. Are you interested in such answers or only in modern machines? $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Oct 12, 2016 at 16:45
  • $\begingroup$ Im interested in any circumstances that would provide an interesting result $\endgroup$ Oct 12, 2016 at 17:02
  • $\begingroup$ so older machines are accepted $\endgroup$ Oct 12, 2016 at 17:03
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Does "opening it up and examining the slots" include milling the tops off of chips and tracing the transistors? You might have to go that far before you could make USB work without a specification. Also, do they get to interact with it from the user's perspective (a program running on the computer), or are the available programs to communicate with fixed? $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Oct 12, 2016 at 17:47
  • $\begingroup$ Also, how many working USB devices do they have to observe in action? It's a lot easier to make sense of a protocol when you can observe it working. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Oct 12, 2016 at 18:10

5 Answers 5


The short answer is "No".

The physical shape of the port is one thing, however the software running behind the scenes is going to make or break this enterprise.

When connecting two devices they have to communicate via a very narrowly defined set of protocols. Since their technology developed differently from ours, the chances of understanding what the heck is going on with those ports is basically zero.

Sure, they might be able to boot it up (I won't get into how it's still operational/charged), and they will probably figure out the interface, and the English language, but even then they won't have access to the raw code, and thus the protocols.

It's possible that they might eventually figure something out by analyzing the OS in agonizing detail, or by monitoring the traffic between two devices (if they got a second one), but even that's a stretch, or at the very least it would require years of research by brilliant minds.


Disclaimer: I'm a programmer but not super knowledgeable about hardware specifics so this is more a layman's answer.

I think making say a wire that could meaningfully transfer input/output via USB would be relatively simple (assuming they had the material science to develop a usb cable) the hard part, especially if they don't have an understanding of english would be making sense of the file system and data.

If they only have one laptop to work with it would be a lot harder to get meaningful information safely. A modern hard drive probably couldn't be analyzed by tech from 20 years ago without dismantling it and even then i don't know that it'd be readable.

It's likely they could make some intelligent guesses as to how the OS works based on their own systems. Set up a series of tests (writing the same simple text file 1000 times to the hard drive so their machines may detect how that pattern is stored and encoded allowing them to learn more about how the hardware is storing information)

I think there would be 2 scenarios

  • The scientists learn as much as they can taking detailed notes and then proceed to dismantle the computer they would likely be able to understand some of the concepts and push forward their own tech but might lose the data on the device.

  • The scientists learn as much as they can without dismantling the device and then store it until their tech is on a more similar level or perhaps a little ahead. They can then make educated guesses as to how the file system and interface protocols would work and understand enough of the hardware to clone the hard disk without loss of meaningful data.

I think the key to understanding the laptop and how it stores and processes information would be finding patterns in the storage device that you can trace back to meaningful content. If they can figure out what "tents' looks like on the harddrive they can start to understand how information is encoded and stored. then they can figure out what a file looks like on the drive.

Realistically i would look at what your goal for the scenario is and play to that. It's unlikely they 20 year old tech with no common base would meaningfully interact with a current computer. So if they need information on the computer they should maintain the computer to learn from it.

If the data isn't important and the laptop is to allow one group advanced technology they develop their own technology based off the hardware but still independent.


It seems that there is a very large zeroth order problem, how do they charge the laptop? If they don't already have enough source material to learn English, there is a tremendous technological hurdle in even discerning how to keep it on to study as a functional device.

If it were a normal hard drive, they might have the ability to replicate it without using the laptop at all. I would guess that given sufficient investment, they would be able to copy the magnetic storage patterns off a hard drive without using the laptop at all. This might allow them to study the data in question at a level similar to intercepting encrypted data. We are quite adept at learning from encoded information, and learning about lost languages. Clearly such a discovery would draw immense investment in understanding it, so the time/cost of this sort of analysis is no issue.

As for your specific choice of a USB drive and 20 years, they might just recognize it. The specifications for USB 1.0 were published almost exactly 20 years ago according to Wikipedia. This leg up would help a lot, but as has been mentioned, the specific interface software is going to be a very long slog.


Lets break this into parts

  • Investigating

This will largely be based on the personality of the person(s) who find it. Most people would start poking it to see if they can get it to do something

  • Hardware

They understand the physics. They could easily build their own hardware (minus the supporting software) assuming they have precises enough tools. Note that the hardware is useless without the software though.

  • Software

Everything is stored in bits. These bits in and of them selves hold only one meaning. True and False. It is our arbitrary assignment of values to collection of bits that give them meaning ( for example, '01100001' can mean '97', 'a', memory block 97, or Regex(compiled, ignorePatternWhitespace, and Multiline)). This is somewhat true of language in general. Translation without a translation key (Something to compare languages on, like the Rosetta Stone) is virtually impossible. If the computer still works, they might be able to reverse engineer the language from the display, but that depends on them not breaking it and what is on the computer.


Yes. The USB port is not terribly complicated, there are 4 wires - power, ground, and 2 data wires. Coincidentally, USB came out exactly 20 years ago, so technologically they already possess the knowledge and tools to reverse engineer the protocol.

They'll find a lot of it intuitive, the biggest problem being the strange language and the fact that the laptop will not be following their industry standards but those they can overcome.

The Soviets tried doing that with limited success during the Cold War, but it can be argued that they were much further behind technology wise than the protagonists.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .