Just how advanced is the human race?


The Dyson Sphere, a speculative idea to harness the power of a star.

The human race has come pretty far. From meager beginnings, it has become the king of the jungle, so to speak. We humans have dominated other species so much we no longer belong to the food chain. We control the food chain. Both directly and indirectly, our actions can determine the fates of entire species; for many, we can choose whether we’d like to help them survive or eradicate them from an ecosystem.

This role has given us a bit of a smug attitude about our position in the universe. We have tried to prove that we are the center of the universe; that we are too sophisticated to be related to “inferior species” like apes; and that humans are made in the image of God (who symbolises perfection).

Of course we have reason to think and believe we are the pinnacle of life. In comparison to all the other life forms we are aware of, we are the only one that is significantly intelligent. Our search for extraterrestrial life has yielded no positive results.

So how can we rate the level of sophistication of human civilisation? How advanced are we really?

A good way of thinking about is to imagine if an intelligent alien race reached us on Earth. How advanced could they be? And if they were hostile, could mankind compete against them? Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku doesn’t think so:

Alien races would be much more advanced than us if they were able to reach us from beyond our solar system. We have trouble reaching the Moon, let alone elsewhere in the universe.

The Kardashev Scale

The idea Kaku is talking about in the video above was first proposed in 1964 by the Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev. Kardashev was obsessed with aliens and pondered over how advanced an alien race would have to be to reach the Earth. He came to the conclusion that a civilisation’s technological advancement went hand in hand with its energy output.

The development of any society is dependent on its ability to generate power, he thought. All technological advancements, and the benefits they provide for civilisation such as the military capabilities they allow for, need energy to work. Energy, according to Kardashev, is the life force of civilisations.

Yet energy production itself requires the technological capacity to generate it. From the early invention of fire and the harvesting of trees to make fuel, to the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, to the splitting of the atom to create nuclear energy, to the creation of photo-voltaic cells to harness the energy coming from the sun, human civilisation has thrived because of the continued improvement of its energy technologies. These technologies have powered, and made possible, all the technological innovations that have made humans so prosperous as a species. All of human society itself – its culture, ideologies, philosophies, morals, sciences and so on – has been shaped by the technologies it has developed.

So Kardashev came up with a scale to measure the level of technological advancement of a civilisation based on its energy output, seeing as it was a pre-requisite behind all of civilisation’s achievements.

According to the scale, named after its inventor, a Type 1 civilisation has the ability to harness the energy of a whole planet (assumed to be the equivalent of 10^16 watts); a Type 2 civilisation can harness the energy of a star (10^26 watts); while a Type 3 civilisation can utilise the energy of an entire galaxy (10^36 watts). Michio Kaku argues there can be higher levels too, where a civilisation can become so powerful that it could create new universes and harness their energy.

Where do humans stand?

Other scientists have also picked up on Kardashev’s ideas and speculated about where humans stand on the scale. One of those scientists was Carl Sagan, who suggested constructing a formula for defining a civilisation’s specific point on the scale, down to its intermediate value. By interpolating and extrapolating the energy output levels proposed as the thresholds for each civilisation type (10^16 watts for Type 1, 10^26 watts for Type 2 and 10^36 watts for Type 3), Sagan came up with this formula:

K = \frac{\log_{10}P - 6} {10}

A civilisation’s particular point on the scale (represented by K) is therefore determined by the amount of power it used (described as P) in proportion to the lineal progression of the energy requirements of each civilisation type, as determined in the formula.

Using this formula, humans would today rate 0.72 on the scale:

Graph courtesy of skyscrapercity.com

So we haven’t even reached Level 1 yet. So much for advanced.

But if you listen to Michio Kaku, we are on the verge of reaching the point of becoming a Level 1 civilisation within the next century (see here).Events on a global scale, triggered by globalisation, are catapulting human civilisation to a new level of scientific and societal advancement.

Regional trading blocs (such as NAFTA, the EU, ASEAN and so on) are liberalising trade and deepening the integration of national markets into one global economy. According to Kaku, the formation of these huge trading blocs is helping promote a “Type 1 economy”, the kind of economy needed to help facilitate humanity’s progression into a “Type 1 civilisation”. The formation of this new worldwide free market economy is driving increased productivity and efficiency across the globe, spurring technological innovation at a rate never before seen.

The internet, according to Kaku, is the global communications system linking everyone together, just like the telephone helped bring people together to form nations. Meanwhile, English is becoming the primary global language, unifying people from around the world.

However, Kaku thinks we are at an important juncture because the progression from Type 0 to Type 1 is the most dangerous time in a civilisation’s lifetime. With the threat of ultra-conservative forces trying to keep the old global political structure the way it was (terrorists, for example) and the overhanging risk of nuclear war caused by an immaturity to deal with the technological revolution that’s occurring, as well as the new, unknown phenomenon of being promoted into a new civilisation type, humans may not make it to Type 1.

This doesn’t even take into account the fact that current energy production methods are damaging our environment and we desperately need to make progress quickly in order to save ourselves from ecological destruction.

This transition from Type 0 to Type 1 is a problem Kaku speculates may have eradicated other alien races before us and we might one day find planets with radiated atmospheres which could have once accommodated life.

Check out this insightful analysis of the science behind Halo, where the ring-like worlds of the game are described as being the simplest, most effective form of creating a Dyson Sphere.

Flaws of the Scale

Of course, the Kardashev scale doesn’t perfectly explain the level of societal advancement, however. For one thing, it plays by rules established by humans on Earth. Just because human civilisation has modernised through greater levels of energy output, it doesn’t mean other species have to follow suit. We cannot predict the behaviour of alternative races.

On top of this, the idea of a level of “advancement” based on energy output imbues a value judgement on what it means to be “advanced”.

Also, it could be argued that technological efficiency is conducive to societal advancement, rather than energy output. In other words, it’s more important to determine how much we can achieve with the energy levels we have rather than how much power we can generate.

Ultimately, what the scale does do is jog us out of our Earth-based way of thinking to suggest one thing: we aren’t, as of yet, as advanced as we may think. We are still primitive in the cosmic scheme of things. You can just imagine an intergalactic superpower scanning the universe for places with energy levels great enough to bother searching for life in. Would we even merit a double take? Perhaps not yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s