How advanced would a spacefaring alien or future civilization become? What is the ultimate fate of intelligence in the universe? Big questions, but there are fundamental underpinnings that affect any civilization that might be out there, perhaps none more fundamental than energy. Civilization’s progress may be measured by the harnessing of ever-greater energy sources; classifying such progress on a cosmic scale was pioneered in 1964 by Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev.
The Kardashev Scale
In his famous “Kardashev scale”, a Type I civilization is defined as using the energy equivalent to the total solar energy that is received by the Earth, a Type II civilization as using the energy of the Sun’s total output, and a Type III civilization as using the energy of the entire Milky Way galaxy. Humanity is not even at Type I yet, so a Type II or Type III would be far more advanced and powerful than we are today.
Kardashev used whole numbers originally, but Carl Sagan redefined the scale as a logarithmic measure of power output. By this measure humanity is at Type 0.73, so we have a long way to go before even reaching Type I. What would a Type I look like?
The world depicted in the setting of the science fiction novel I’m writing now is Type 0.98 or so on Sagan’s scale, so very close, perhaps even a bit over the 1.00 mark by 2020. Nuclear fission is the primary power source, extensive colonies exist on all the nearby planets, space habitats large enough to fit in small cities are commonplace and getting somewhat easy to construct, and the cost of spaceflight and all earthbound forms of vehicular travel negligible. My guess is that far cheaper energy in this world leads to an economy 5 times as energy intensive as ours, so the 500 times greater energy use translates to a 100 times increase in living standards.
A Cornucopia of Wealth?
This means that a family that earns $50,000 today would earn $5 million in such a world. As economies develop it is reasonable to assume the value of capital as a percentage of all wealth will continue to increase as it has since at least the industrial revolution, as land and labor shrink into insignificance. Thus the vast majority of that $5 million will come from capital, i.e. financial investments, rather than labor.
Some labor input will still be needed, but it would likely command far higher prices, bringing into existence the kind of heavily automated society we speculate about today, though in this case it would be caused by people not wanting jobs rather than causing people to be thrown out of jobs. Fred Turner in his excellent 2002 piece “Make Everybody Rich” describes such a world where every baby is a trust fund baby. Among other aspects, “the word unemployed will become archaic and comic”. In a world of investors living standards would be measured by the asset base; income would become as archaic a yardstick of wealth as heads of cattle are to most people today.
Even most of the poor could easily afford a living standard equivalent to today’s lower-tier multi-millionaires. This isn’t quite at Star Trek levels of technology and prosperity but it’s a long way down that path. For perspective, consider that from 1820 to today the world has gone from 5 to 158 terawatt-hours of energy consumption, an increase of 31 times. This 500 times increase that would take us to a Type I civilization is 16 times greater than the entire industrial revolution of the past two centuries put together.
Ranking Civilizations of Science Fiction
And that’s just up to Type I. Further into Type I territory, we have the world of Star Trek. In “True Q”, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, it was mentioned the Enterprise-D’s warp reactor produces 12.75 billion gigawatts; according to this excellent TVTropes article on the topic, if the Enterprise consumes as much power in relative terms as a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier or super-heavy rocket does today would put the Federation’s power consumption at 4 x 1020 to 1x 1024 watts, solidly in middle to upper part of Type I territory. In “Good Shepherd”, an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, Captain Janeway casually orders an extra five terawatts, a third of the human race’s entire power output today, diverted to the sensors, which is also consistent with this level.
Keep in mind the Federation is an interstellar civilization and many goods and services that are very scarce now are post-scarcity in the 24th century. This means that, while there is still a finite amount of the good, the cost to provide everyone all of it they want to use at a price of zero is so negligible it’s not worth bothering to meter it. Air of course is the archetypal post-scarcity good, but among other things email storage is at this point now. Subsistence, namely food, water, and shelter, will inevitably follow with economic development and expansion into homestead-able space; well into Type I territory the entire early 21st century living standard of an even relatively affluent person will be post-scarcity in the same way email storage is now.
Moving up the scale, even the fearsome Borg of Star Trek probably only rank as a top-tier Type I civilization, underlying just how huge of a gap there is between even fractions of a Kardashev type. V’Ger from Star Trek: The Motion Picture is probably an artifact of a lower-tier Type II civilization, judging by its power level relative to Federation ships. The Star Wars galaxy is even better known than Star Trek’s, and much more advanced technologically. Even that civilization weighs in somewhere around the border of Type II on the Karsashev scale. While there are other cultures in fiction, such as that of The Culture novels and the Orion’s Arm worldbuilding project, both of which rank well into Type III territory, it does underline the enormous differences in levels of development.
Making Sense of Kardashev’s Energy Levels
The difference between pre-industrial man and man today is around one of magnitude of energy usage. The difference between the boundaries of Type I and Type II is ten orders of magnitude, equivalent to ten industrial revolution-size advances in development. A borderline Type II civilization would use ten trillion times as much energy as ours does. A borderline Type III civilization is ten orders of magnitude higher still, ten billion times the output of a borderline Type II. The observable universe’s output is 13 orders of magnitude higher still; a civilization at this scale would rank around Type 4.3 on Sagan’s version of the scale. There is actually no particular reason to believe this is the ultimate limit, but it might be a good place to stop for now.
To bring it into comprehension, consider the power of a household. If we simplistically divide today’s power output by the world population, and assume four people per household, we come to each household getting one part in 1.75 billion of the civilizational energy consumption. This means that in a Type I civilization, each household would have the resources a group of 1000 does today, or roughly a large town. A project undertaken by a large town or a medium-size business today would be affordable for ordinary people in a borderline Type I civilization.
In an upper-tier Type I civilization, each household would have energy consumption akin to the entire human race put together today; extremely high but probably still graspable. In an upper-tier Type II civilization each household has powers akin to an entire upper-tier Type I civilization put together, much less graspable. Of course, this assumes the population remains the same, which it obviously won’t over such a long timeline. That timeline might not be as long as some people seem to think, however.
Consider that it has taken one or two centuries for a one order of magnitude increase in energy consumption to occur; this is the industrial revolution. If we assume that energy usage increases at such a rate humanity will reach Type I status in three to six centuries, Type II status one or two millennia after that, and Type III status one or two millennia still further. This implies humanity will be a Type III civilization by the year 6600 or so at the latest, possibly as soon as 4300.
That assumes that the industrial revolution’s growth rate is the highest possible, when nuclear energy could easily be unlocked at a much faster pace than fossil fuels were. A pound of uranium contains as much energy as several million pounds of coal, after all, when gasoline contains less than 3 times as much energy as wood.
This logically implies nuclear fission will unlock a million times greater increase in energy availability and thus living standards than fossil fuels did. Oil, with its 3 times greater specific energy, unlocked perhaps a 20 times increase in living standards. This implies that a nuclear revolution analogous to the fossil fuel revolution would ultimately lead to a living standard 10 million times greater than today’s, probably higher as time went on. In this kind of a world household incomes would expand to a mind-boggling $500 billion per year. A majority of the population would be multi-trillionaires. This sort of energy usage with our current population implies upper-tier Type I status, and might be achieved in just a few centuries. Theoretically, incremental improvements on technology we already have can get us that far.
Where are the Dyson Spheres?
There may be still unknown energy sources that are greater. A civilization well into Type III status could easily harbor individuals that create whole solar systems, clusters, or even galaxies as artistic projects or the equivalent of our cathedrals and pyramids. Of course, if there were such a civilization out there, one might think their presence would be very obvious, yet survey after survey has failed to turn up anything but tantalizing hints that any race has built a Dyson sphere or other megastructure around even a single star. Searches have been conducted for galaxies that might be covered from end to end in Dyson spheres, yet it has been comprehensively ruled out that any such civilization exists anywhere near us. There are some who find this fact particularly puzzling.
In Thomas Moynihan’s fascinating May 2020 Palladium article “Our Visions of the Future Determine Our Society Today”, it is pointed out that futurists sometimes plausibly envision technological intelligence sweeping across galaxies like cancers, dismantling countless planets to serve as solar energy collectors and raw material for habitats. Even with technology we know how to build now, such an intelligence could sweep across an entire galaxy such as our own in only a few million years, despoiling the cosmos primeval and leaving nothing but artifice in its wake. At the very least we know our own neighborhood of the Milky Way has not been touched by such a civilization, and given what we know it’s quite possible that no galaxy anywhere near us in the observable universe has suffered this fate.
So either we are indeed alone in the (nearby) universe or “technological cancer” is not a characteristic of advanced civilizations. Much thinking around technology assumes the path of technological advancement inevitably involves an increase in the invasion and disruption of nature in favor of its transformation into an artifice that is ever-more alien to the original wilderness. What if that’s not true?
Union with Nature: the ultimate Technology?
Freeman Dyson, who himself posited technological cancer in the 1960s, proposed in the 1970s and later that civilizations might grow trees on comets and spread them abroad, living off the byproducts of these plants and achieving a “greening of the galaxy” or even universe. The mode of exploitation in the distant future might be more akin to a botanical garden than a factory or a crop field.
As technologies advance, after all, they become more seamless and less invasive against the wild nature they were fashioned from. We have seen this trend even in our own industrial technological development, so it’s reasonable to posit that, as bizarre as it might seem to us, our entire modern civilization could ultimately assume a form hard to distinguish from wilderness. Technologies characteristic of Type I civilizations will follow the same path, as will Type II and III technologies.
If the advance of intelligence in the universe is characterized by increased mastery over nature, technology and control over nature will become increasingly seamless; megastructures alien to wild nature are ultimately merely a temporary and crude phase of technological development, the endgame of which is the seamless integration of intelligence with the cosmic ecology itself. Nikolai Fyodorov and the Russian Cosmists were already exploring such ideas as early as the 19th century; the concept of requisitioning of the solar system and ultimately the entire cosmos as the nervous system and body of human (or presumably alien) intelligence is also known as the “noosphere”.
The ultimate Fate of Intelligence in the Noosphere
Ultimately the planets, stars, and perhaps even the very fabric of the universe could achieve consciousness, becoming one with the faculty of thought. As far back as 1889 the French science fiction author J.-H. Rosny aîné was speculating about a future civilization which dispensed with mechanisms entirely, instead attaining the ability to directly appropriate the forces of nature. He, along with many others from the 19th century onward, interestingly characterized this noosphere as being analogous to the unconscious reservoirs of instinct in the nervous system rather than the faculties of higher reasoning.
Karl Schroeder, another science fiction author, expanded on this implication, suggesting in a 2002 novel that consciousness arises to deal with unforeseen situations that instinct cannot handle. Walking to us is so well-mastered it is something we do instinctively, without thought or reason required, as is throwing an object on a ballistic trajectory. The sciences that unlock the secrets of the universe and the technological infrastructure needed to support even a universe-spanning civilization high upon the Kardashev scale may inevitably follow ballistic throws and basic tool-making as faculties that do not require conscious thought. This final immersion with the cosmos and the stagnation of the cosmos’s most advanced minds may be the natural end of a successful intelligence’s life cycle, the noosphere left behind perhaps serving as fertilizer and raw material for the emergence of a new intelligence.
Alternatively, and perhaps more optimistically, entirely new universes and realms of existence might be explored, discovered, or even created. Technology may advance so that the cutting edge eventually passes beyond the sight of our realm of existence altogether, leaving only ever-more-seamless and integrated means of controlling nature left behind for us to see in this universe. The total, complete, and final immersion with nature may only characterize the observable parts of the most advanced civilizations, the components in our universe that we can see and understand with our science and technology serving as a mere substrate for a cruder and more artificial technological frontier elsewhere that still requires conscious thought.
When does Nature and Artifice re-converge?
If all this is true, the “Fermi Paradox” is resolved by the convergence of nature and artifice starting to take hold in a civilization’s technological development long before it reaches the point where whole galaxies may be covered by Dyson spheres. Precisely when this happens is an interesting question. Nuclear fission alone can take a civilization with our population up to Type 1.4, nuclear fusion perhaps up to Type 1.5.
This might be the ultimate power source, and perhaps the point where artifice starts to slide into wilderness, but antimatter offers a hundred times the power density. Unfortunately it must be created artificially and so cannot be used as a primary energy source, but the theoretical possibility exists that non-orientable wormholes could be constructed; these wormholes are capable of flipping the orientation of any object that passes through them and turning any matter into antimatter and vice versa.
This opens up the possibility of cheap antimatter production in the distant future, and attaining perhaps Type 1.7. Considering these wormholes might be maintained at any size and there is no minimum size for antimatter to be useful, a characteristic it shares in common with nuclear fusion, it’s possible that this is the point where the re-convergence of technology and nature becomes more pronounced. The characteristics of such technology almost cry out for seamlessness with nature. These numbers assume the population remains the same size as today; if it’s several orders of magnitude larger it could go beyond Type 2.0 by this point, so the stage at which technology converges with nature may be most characteristic of Type II civilizations.
For what it’s worth this whole idea is consistent with a great many works of science fiction, where such a high “space age” technological level, usually represented by first a “Raygun Gothic” and then “Crystal Spires and Togas” aesthetic, is attained before it heads into exotic and incomprehensible directions out of our plane of existence altogether, toward destinations where the mark of civilization is not readily identifiable as artificial at all or is even completely unobservable.
Rather than representing a break with what we think of as the future or needing to posit that science fiction authors are completely wrong about the shape of the distant future, perhaps our collective intuition about the future as revealed in science fiction is completely right about even the most distant parts of civilization’s future, and we have only looked at it the wrong way. Now that is a truly radical thought.
In any event the universe is an almost incomprehensibly big place, and whatever course truly advanced civilizations take is a fascinating topic to explore, and one that we will have a long time ahead of us as a race to discover. Hopefully this post will make a contribution, however small, toward that effort.