The Potential of Intelligent Civilizations

By Jay Jaganaath

You might’ve heard in recent times about Elon Musk’s plans to colonize Mars through SpaceX. While his claims of colonizing Mars before the end of this century seems ridiculously sci-fi, it is inching towards a certain reality with the NASA mandate to put humans on Mars by 2033. However, as we trudge on towards inter-planetary colonization, there may be others millions, if not billions of years ahead of us, space-faring civilizations manipulating entire galaxies to obey their whims.

While concepts such as the Fermi’s Paradox  (If there is extraterrestrial life, why hasn’t it contacted us) lead us to believe that we are the only ones in this whole universe, the search is on, with various classifications and potential technologies hypothesized to measure the progress of intelligent civilizations, the most notable being the Kardashev Scale.

Over the course of this article, I will go over the three types of civilizations as defined by Kardashev and also talk about related future technologies as well as Mankind’s current position on this scale.

First of all, the Kardashev Scale was proposed in 1964 by the Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev.  It is a method of measuring a civilization’s level of technological advancement, based on the amount of energy a civilization is able to use. In Kardashev’s original definition, he includes three types:

  • A Type I civilization: called a planetary civilization that can use and store all of the energy which reaches its planet from its parent star (for us, its 7×1017 watts).
  • A Type II civilization—also called a stellar civilization that can harness the total energy of its planet’s parent star (in this case, our sun, which holds 4×1026 watts).
  • A Type III civilization—also called a galactic civilization that can control energy on the scale of its entire host galaxy (for our Milky Way galaxy, its 4×1037 watts).

The scale is hypothetical and describes energy consumption on a cosmic scale.

To achieve a Type I civilization, mankind has to be able to achieve an energy output equal to every ounce of stored energy obtainable on Earth. Present methods include fossil fuels and renewable energy resources, but can soon expand to sources like Nuclear Fusion/Fission and even creating antimatter from regular mass ( when antimatter and matter collide, they create a huge amount of energy). Acclaimed physicist Michio Kaku claims that humans can reach this level in about 100-200 years.

To achieve a Type II civilization, humans have to be able to utilize every ounce of energy radiated from our sun. This calls for engineering marvels much greater than any normal solar panel system on earth – Stellar Engines. Built for the purpose of creating useful energy from a star, the Stellar Engines come in two different forms:

Class A: This type of Stellar Engine ( known as a Shkadov Thruster when it becomes a megastructure) uses the energy radiated by the star to generate thrust either in itself or in the star itself. It can be used either to propel spacecraft without carrying fuel or to even move entire solar systems by applying thrust on the star. The first prototypic example of this is the IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun), a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) experimental spacecraft.

Class B: This type of Stellar Engine (most popular in science fiction) is the Dyson Sphere, an entire structure (theorized by scientist Freeman Dyson) covering the entirety of the star, extracting a large portion of the star’s energy for the purpose of generating thermoelectricity. A more elaborate variant of this is the Matrioshka Brain, a system of multiple Dyson spheres built around the star, covering it in multiple layers. It has been hypothesized that the Matrioshka Brain can be used as a massive supercomputer too.

Michio Kaku says that humans can reach this stage in a few thousand years.

Finally, to achieve a Type III civilization, humans need to able to extract all of the energy in their galaxy. This can be done by first using Stellar Engines on all the solar systems in the galaxy, and then utilizing energy from even black holes (most galaxies have a huge black hole at their center). This can be done through the Penrose process  (which involves extracting the rotational energy of a black hole) as depicted in the movie Interstellar.

Michio Kaku says that this level would not be attainable for another 100,000 to a million years.

In the time we wait (for a long time) for these technologies, there are ways to evaluate our own civilization rating on the Kardashev Scale. Created by famed scientist Carl Sagan, the following formula gives the relation between the power output of a civilization and the Kardashev Scale rating:

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Where K stands for the Kardashev Scale Rating and P for the total energy output in watts. In case you aren’t familiar with logarithms, here’s another way to describe this equation:

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To give you a sense of what this means, in 2015 the worldwide energy consumption was 17.35 TW (Terawatts), equal to about 0.7239 on the Kardashev Scale, not far away from becoming a Type I civilization.

We see traces of these civilizations even in the present day through SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), that traced what might be a Dyson Sphere on the star KIC 8462852, due to an unnatural dimming of its emitted light. Only our strength as humanity can tell if we can ascend to such heights.