In the novel Children of Memory, on a planet mostly hostile to Earth life, corvids become genetically uplifted and essentially establish a technologically-advanced civilization purely on the back of curiosity, mimicry, and memory. They reverse engineer, restart, run, and optimise abandoned human technology. They can speak with humans in what appears to be highly relevant, contextual regurgitation of quotes from historical human media and literature.
However, they don't create anything novel out of independent agency. They require novelty to be presented to them to deconstruct, reconstruct, learn, and optimise. And they're really good at it, even applying this approach to computer systems and spacecraft.
They don't seem to be sentient, which is a core plot element running through the novel.
On the one hand this seems like a silly premise - how could a species advanced enough to deconstruct, reconstruct, and use a spacecraft not be sentient?
I suggest that we're starting to see the very real possibility of this scenario in what's been happening in the AI space over the past year.
Generative AI powered by LLMs, transformers, and diffusion yielded a collective "oh shit" moment in 2022. Suddenly, a larger possibility space was revealed.
ChatGPT can write working code for you in seconds. It can explain and rephrase complex concepts. Apart from those moments where the cracks show, it feels like you're speaking with one of the smartest humans on the planet. And it will only get better and more efficient.
Stable Diffusion and Midjourney can create stunningly beautiful images and realistic photos in seconds. Image art styles can be changed, elements removed, non-existent humans created. And these systems will only get better and more efficient.
The same is now happening with chemistry and biology.
Fast forward a little bit on the technological explosion curve, make the AI systems interconnected and a little bit more complex, speed them up, and you've got the sci-fi corvid scenario, though probably even more advanced.
If there's a part of that complex mix of AI systems that has an always-on driving mechanism (something like "deconstruct novelty" in the case of the corvids), you've got what looks like a technologically-advanced civilization emerging.