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    Default Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    Can a civilization theoretically utilize and replicate advanced technologies in their day-to-day life without an intimate understanding of the scientific principles which allow the technologies to function? In one of my settings, a civilization which spans several hundred planets and has access to FTL transport methods isn't supposed to understand the principles behind the technologies. The tech was reverse-engineered from the ancient remnants of a precursor civilization, yet is now able to be replicated by the modern civilization through some means.

    The situation would be similar to the alien races of the Covenant from Halo, which used Forerunner based tech without a true understanding of the mechanics involved. Is this sort of situation feasible or completely illogical?

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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    I don't think you mean "used".

    I can press a button and use it just fine without knowing anything other than "press this button".

    You seem to mean, can stuff be made without it being understood. That's an entirely different can of worms. Sometimes it can, fire for instance, some times it can't, micro-electronics for instance.
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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    Quote Originally Posted by IndominusCruor View Post
    Can a civilization theoretically utilize and replicate advanced technologies in their day-to-day life without an intimate understanding of the scientific principles which allow the technologies to function?
    This is more the center of the question, "used" was more pertinent to the only example I could think of off the top of my head of something similar occurring in another setting.

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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    Yes. There is many RL examples of technologies that we can create and use, despite the underlying physics being only partially understood. The classic example is heavier-than-air flight, which for the longest time had something like six competing theories on what caused lift. And yet planes still flew.

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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    Yes. Heavier than air flight is a good example, but I like to look back a bit further - we've been doing cooking and metallurgy for a very long time, the underlying principles are all sorts of complicated and rely on some fairly sophisticated chemistry for both. Essentially we need to know how things work at a level of black box processes (inputs go in, stuff happens, outputs go out) where the inputs and outputs are understood to a pretty high level but the stuff that happens is totally irrelevant as long as operation of the box works.

    Or, more prosaically - if you know how it works but don't know why it works, you can use it for technology. You can even refine the processes, although it's a sloppy and heavily empirical process compared to what can be done with a deeper understanding.

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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    I would say yes, but with the caveat that you also have to understand how to make all the individual components oif the tech in question. For example, if a Star Trek ship fell through a wormhole and crashed on modern-day Earth, in order to replicate the warp drive we'd have to find a source of dilithium crystals (whatever *those* are) and also figure out how to make and store large quantities of anti-matter, neither of which are trivial propositions!

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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    Heavier-than-air flight is a lousy example, since we've understood how it works for significantly longer than we've been doing it. There's one correct theory for it, which is the one that people actually working in the field have always been using. There are multiple ways of describing that theory which are all correct. There are also incorrect explanations which are often found in bad science books, but those incorrect explanations have never made it beyond the bad science books.
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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    Somebody patented the transistor in the 1920s. Unfortunately for him, while a few worked in the lab they never worked in production. The patent never mentions anything about impurities and that's absolutely critical for transistor function (two parts have one type of impurity giving them a preferential charge, the other part has the opposite type of impurity).

    So a few were working for completely unknown reasons. I'm sure this happens more in software (because you can make changes so fast) than you could imagine (there is a famous comment in the Unix code saying "you aren't expected to understand this". The code it refers to has a rather hidden bug in it. I think the author had started recommend not coding "as cleverly as you can" as then you have to be smarter than you are to debug it sometime between writing that code and the discovery of that bug).

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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    It really depends. The issue is primarily that, for such an advanced technology, we might not have the equipment to identify all the components without compromising them. Imagine someone from the past discovering a microchip, for example; even if they were capable of producing circuits, they might ruin the microchip before learning where everything goes. I'm assuming FTL technology is very sophisticated, and therefore that's an issue we'd likely run into in real life.

    Of course, with you being the author, you can write around that issue. If we can correctly identify all components, and manufacture them, then there's no reason why we couldn't reverse engineer it.
    The nice thing about this scenario is you'll likely have no shortage of experts willing to work on it. If you wanted to give yourself some extra leeway, perhaps you could work in some way for the ship's schematics to be found. They'd likely be stored on a computer (which is unlikely to have a USB port handy) and they'd need to be translated, but those are minor issues.

    As a writer, especially of science fiction, the question of "can X be done" is far less useful than "how can X be done".

    Edit: And upon re-reading your post, it looks like this takes place far before the time period you've set your work in. That's good because it allows you to step back from the details. Ultimately, yes, it is theoretically possible. Having established that, all you need to do is say that it was done, and not go into further details.
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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    Humanity has made babies for millions of years (life predating humanity for billions of years) without any inkling of basic biology. In light of this, an automated system that maintains technology without a civilization understanding its functions seems very reasonable.
    Last edited by Leewei; 2017-11-02 at 10:08 AM.

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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    Quote Originally Posted by Leewei View Post
    Humanity has made babies for millions of years (life predating humanity for billions of years) without any inkling of basic biology. In light of this, an automated system that maintains technology without a civilization understanding its functions seems very reasonable.
    Except the two scenarios are not even remotely comparable? Making a baby is something that's hard-wired into the most primitive parts of our brain, so of course we were able to do it before we really knew what was behind the whole thing. I seriously doubt we have schematics for an alien FTL drive baked into our subconscious! (Although, of course, you could have that very thing be the reason why it works--for some reason, the aliens who invented FTL came by and seeded genetic knowledge of it into all the sentient species they encountered).

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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    I'll chime in a 'probably yes'. I recall a thread a while ago about what if modern firearms were teleported back hundreds of years. I think there was some talk that the lack of tools to replicate the precision of modern parts and gun barrels would limit what could be replicated, but it would certainly allow use of some modern gear and replicating what could be replicated.

    Quote Originally Posted by factotum View Post
    (Although, of course, you could have that very thing be the reason why it works--for some reason, the aliens who invented FTL came by and seeded genetic knowledge of it into all the sentient species they encountered).
    Another option could be some sort of telepathic download. Perhaps subtle, to avoid overwhelming/frying the recipient's brain. It could manifest as an intuition about how things work, taking some time as the human brain translates and interprets the alien input that was given to it. We can assume the alien power source (basically a low-power sleep mode battery) hasn't run out of juice when humans find the tech.

    I could see that in a sci-fi book for a benevolent species that did not want its knowledge to be lost (or just a real techy one not wanting it lost), or a malevolent one that seeds other stuff along with the technological intuition.

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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    Quote Originally Posted by factotum View Post
    Except the two scenarios are not even remotely comparable?
    Let me give a more comparable example, then. Humans have been using domesticated animals for countless thousands of years, despite not being able to produce them from raw components.

    Still biology, sure -- but I don't think someone can argue successfully that biology is distinct from technology.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Leewei View Post
    Let me give a more comparable example, then. Humans have been using domesticated animals for countless thousands of years, despite not being able to produce them from raw components.

    Still biology, sure -- but I don't think someone can argue successfully that biology is distinct from technology.
    I think domestication and raising of them essentially is producing them. They are the raw materials, and we raise/breed them to produce more of them. I guess it's more akin to knowing how to manage a factory that makes widgets than making the widgets directly, but for replication/use purposes, the two are pretty similar.

    That is, while we don't know the underlying biology, we know everything practical for using, 'creating', and manipulating livestock. Just like you don't need to understand all the laws of physics and chemistry to make an effective gun, but you could still replicate and use it.

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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    Quote Originally Posted by JeenLeen View Post
    I think domestication and raising of them essentially is producing them. They are the raw materials, and we raise/breed them to produce more of them. I guess it's more akin to knowing how to manage a factory that makes widgets than making the widgets directly, but for replication/use purposes, the two are pretty similar.

    That is, while we don't know the underlying biology, we know everything practical for using, 'creating', and manipulating livestock. Just like you don't need to understand all the laws of physics and chemistry to make an effective gun, but you could still replicate and use it.
    If you had a machine capable of reproducing and repairing itself when you diddled the controls correctly, would you truly understand it in the OP's intended sense?

    Quote Originally Posted by IndominusCruor
    Can a civilization theoretically utilize and replicate advanced technologies in their day-to-day life without an intimate understanding of the scientific principles which allow the technologies to function? (Emphasis added.)
    I'm pretty certain that what you (JeenLeen) are describing is vocational knowledge rather than intimate understanding of scientific principles - especially since husbandry predates scientific method.

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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    Id say yes, though it depends on what it is. I mean, im fairly certain Blacksmiths of the Middle Ages didnt have any intimate understanding of chemistry or of metallurgy as we know it, but they could make some really good steel anyway.

    As others have said, it requires a lot of trial and error this way, but you can still do it.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Blackhawk748 View Post
    Id say yes, though it depends on what it is. I mean, im fairly certain Blacksmiths of the Middle Ages didnt have any intimate understanding of chemistry or of metallurgy as we know it, but they could make some really good steel anyway.

    As others have said, it requires a lot of trial and error this way, but you can still do it.
    Sometimes they made really good steel. Sometimes they didn't. There's a big difference between being able to order modern steel by number and knowing its properties and a blacksmith simply beating out "some steel". You don't know if the sword is any good until you hit something hard (or fire an arrow into the armor at close range).

    Where the difference is really apparent is in crossbows. There were limited strengths of crossbows and the draw length was something like 6" (modern crossbows are at least four times that). Since a failed crossbow tends to explode with lethal force, few were willing to trust the steel of the day for more than 6" draw length (even though each doubling of the draw length would increase the final bolt velocity as much as doubling the draw weight).

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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    I think the only sane answer is "it depends". Some technology can be replicated without understanding, and some pretty much can't.

    Computer chips for example. If you tried to make those in a furnace and anvil blacksmith style, you'd fail. They are not just rectangular bits of slightly impure silicon, there are very detailed microscopic patterns on them, and the patterns matter.
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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    Quote Originally Posted by wumpus View Post
    Sometimes they made really good steel. Sometimes they didn't. There's a big difference between being able to order modern steel by number and knowing its properties and a blacksmith simply beating out "some steel". You don't know if the sword is any good until you hit something hard (or fire an arrow into the armor at close range).

    Where the difference is really apparent is in crossbows. There were limited strengths of crossbows and the draw length was something like 6" (modern crossbows are at least four times that). Since a failed crossbow tends to explode with lethal force, few were willing to trust the steel of the day for more than 6" draw length (even though each doubling of the draw length would increase the final bolt velocity as much as doubling the draw weight).
    Well yes, clearly an understanding of the underlying principles means you can better use any given technology, in the sense of better understanding its applications and limitations. The question isn't about "is knowing more better?" It's "what counts as sufficient knowledge to use?" I'd argue that the people producing Damascus Steel knew plenty about shaping metal, even if they couldn't point to the physical underpinnings of it.
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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    Quote Originally Posted by georgie_leech View Post
    Well yes, clearly an understanding of the underlying principles means you can better use any given technology, in the sense of better understanding its applications and limitations. The question isn't about "is knowing more better?" It's "what counts as sufficient knowledge to use?" I'd argue that the people producing Damascus Steel knew plenty about shaping metal, even if they couldn't point to the physical underpinnings of it.
    It's not just *using* a technology, though, it's replicating it from scratch that's the difficult bit. You give a primitive man a gun and show him how to pull the trigger and reload, he'll be shooting things in no time. Ask him to build a copy of that gun that will actually fire without blowing his hand off? That's a whole 'nother level of complexity.

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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    Quote Originally Posted by IndominusCruor View Post
    Can a civilization theoretically utilize and replicate advanced technologies in their day-to-day life without an intimate understanding of the scientific principles which allow the technologies to function? In one of my settings, a civilization which spans several hundred planets and has access to FTL transport methods isn't supposed to understand the principles behind the technologies. The tech was reverse-engineered from the ancient remnants of a precursor civilization, yet is now able to be replicated by the modern civilization through some means.

    The situation would be similar to the alien races of the Covenant from Halo, which used Forerunner based tech without a true understanding of the mechanics involved. Is this sort of situation feasible or completely illogical?
    One I am using in a book is that all life from any given planet had a concious hive mind that the individuals are not always aware of. These organisms use the processing power of quadrillions of individuals (which is what sleeping/dreaming actually is) and as such are far smarter than individuals can even imagine.

    Some of them plant ideas and technologies into individual members' brains, which allows them to spread colonies across the stars to grow themselves.
    Now if everyone could please "Sig" something along the lines of "Gosh 2D8HP, you are so very correct (and also good looking)", I think that would be good progress.

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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    Show an ancient greek genius how to make an atomic bomb. They'll be able to learn from the required advances in chemistry, engineering, material science, and math all required to build this modern piece of technology. They wouldn't be able to learn anything about relativity, the full extent of the periodic table, or vast swaths of the physics we now understand about the nature of matter and energy.

    So basically, reverse engineering the tech would teach us some stuff. Figuring out how to make the machines to make our own copies of the stuff would also necessarily require certain advances. We wouldn't necessarily need to have more than the vaguest understanding of the theoretical underpinnings, though.

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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    Two aspects that no one has mentioned that are very relevant when talking about future technologies;

    1) Self-repairing (or self-replicating) systems. It is reasonable to conceive of an an advanced production device that can repair itself. Meaning that the device that creates the 'flux-capacitor' that is critical to the FTL can fix itself and effectively just needs energy and raw material. The user of such a device does not need to know how to create another one from scratch.

    2) Another thing to think about, building and using a previously designed and documented device does not require the knowledge on how/why such a thing works. One job of engineers is to document how to build something, without the knowledge of why.

    A specific example; all of the machines used to create microchips are build, from scratch, by people who really have no idea why they do the steps they do. Some guy/gal gets a material list of a bunch of metal stock. He cuts it to size. The next guy welds or bolts the pieces together. Neither of them have a clue about the stress analysis needed to design it. A few more people down the line wrap copper wires around something and solder a bunch of wires per a diagram and before you know it their is a power supply. This goes on and on until suddenly you have a chemical mechanical planarization system that make the silicon wafers really really flat. None of those people who build it could design one from scratch, they follow documented work instructions that tell them the little steps. And the people who feed it rough wafers just know to put a stack in and run a routine. If it fails they run another protocol and if that fails they discard the bad stack and try a new one.

    This happens throughout the world with nearly every "high-tech" device. The uneducated poorly paid line workers in Asia have no idea why they are doing what they do, yet your TV and smart phone are put together by them.

    Understanding is needed (more or less) to develop new things, but not to duplicate things that the process to build and test and put into production are already documented.

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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    Quote Originally Posted by LordEntrails View Post
    1) Self-repairing (or self-replicating) systems. It is reasonable to conceive of an an advanced production device that can repair itself. Meaning that the device that creates the 'flux-capacitor' that is critical to the FTL can fix itself and effectively just needs energy and raw material. The user of such a device does not need to know how to create another one from scratch.
    Such things would be incredibly dangerous, but we don't know how to make them yet.

    2) Another thing to think about, building and using a previously designed and documented device does not require the knowledge on how/why such a thing works. One job of engineers is to document how to build something, without the knowledge of why.

    Understanding is needed (more or less) to develop new things, but not to duplicate things that the process to build and test and put into production are already documented.
    The scenario is they found the things, without documentation, and need to make new ones from looking at the ones they found. This is not simple to do. If they found the things at the edge of an extinct empire, the factory is probably toward the centre, so maybe they didn't find that. Then it is impossible to build new things just by looking at the old ones without knowledge of how they work.
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    Quote Originally Posted by halfeye View Post
    Such things would be incredibly dangerous, but we don't know how to make them yet.
    Not yet, but they are being developed (self-repairing systems). The first step is self-repairing materials. Which have already been developed in experimental labs. That being said, their repair abilities are extremely limited and not yet equal to the original substance.

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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    As already noted above, naturally evolved biological entities can serve as functional black boxes, and they are self-replicating and self-repairing.

    Silk-producing spiders and insects were an example.
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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    Quote Originally Posted by factotum View Post
    It's not just *using* a technology, though, it's replicating it from scratch that's the difficult bit. You give a primitive man a gun and show him how to pull the trigger and reload, he'll be shooting things in no time. Ask him to build a copy of that gun that will actually fire without blowing his hand off? That's a whole 'nother level of complexity.
    Hand it to a modern man (who nonetheless has absolutely no specific knowledge or equipment pertaining to modern gunsmithing) and you'll get pretty much the same result.
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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    Quote Originally Posted by Frozen_Feet View Post
    As already noted above, naturally evolved biological entities can serve as functional black boxes, and they are self-replicating and self-repairing.

    Silk-producing spiders and insects were an example.
    Thanks - I probably wasn't clear enough on biology being equivalent to technology. To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, a sufficiently advanced technology can be made indistinguishable from life.

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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    Quote Originally Posted by IndominusCruor View Post
    Can a civilization theoretically utilize and replicate advanced technologies in their day-to-day life without an intimate understanding of the scientific principles which allow the technologies to function? In one of my settings, a civilization which spans several hundred planets and has access to FTL transport methods isn't supposed to understand the principles behind the technologies. The tech was reverse-engineered from the ancient remnants of a precursor civilization, yet is now able to be replicated by the modern civilization through some means.

    The situation would be similar to the alien races of the Covenant from Halo, which used Forerunner based tech without a true understanding of the mechanics involved. Is this sort of situation feasible or completely illogical?
    There was a book by Frederik Pohl called Gateway that's kind of similar to this.

    Humanity found an asteroid studded with an advanced civilization's abandoned fleet of ships. The humans, through trial and error, have figured out how to make the ships go, but not anywhere near controlled. So, they pack a few volunteers into each one, have them set the ships off, hope they come back and bring goodies for them to reverse engineer.

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    Default Re: Can advanced technologies be used without understanding them?

    Quote Originally Posted by IndominusCruor View Post
    Can a civilization theoretically utilize and replicate advanced technologies in their day-to-day life without an intimate understanding of the scientific principles which allow the technologies to function? In one of my settings, a civilization which spans several hundred planets and has access to FTL transport methods isn't supposed to understand the principles behind the technologies. The tech was reverse-engineered from the ancient remnants of a precursor civilization, yet is now able to be replicated by the modern civilization through some means.

    The situation would be similar to the alien races of the Covenant from Halo, which used Forerunner based tech without a true understanding of the mechanics involved. Is this sort of situation feasible or completely illogical?
    Sounds like the premise behind Homeworld, Relic's first video game.
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