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Sunday, 5 December 2010

Will our civilisation survive the crossing? Part II

Please read Part I of this article available below before continuing.

Futurology, or the art of predicting the future.
John von Neumann, who’s considered the father of the modern computer, made two predictions just after the war: first, he predicted that only governments would be able to afford very powerful computers in the future as these would become huge and expensive; second, he was confident that eventually powerful computers would be able to forecast the weather accurately. We very well know that weather forecasting is still pretty much a gamble. As for his first prediction, the growth of computers and their power over the past decades have gone in the opposite direction: almost anyone can afford a computer today and we can keep it in our pocket; for example smartphones.
Therefore, futurology seems a rather risky science. Considering that most scientific polls about our future or the future of our technology conducted by futurologists have been proved to be wildly off the mark, I’m not surprised to learn that futurology has gained a notorious reputation and seems closer to witch craft and Harry Potter magic. “What makes futurology such a primitive science is that our brains think literally, while knowledge progresses exponentially” (Kaku). What does that mean?
Futurist Ray Kurzweil explains that relation clearly in Time magazine (December 6, 2010 issue, 10 Questions): “Out intuition about the future is linear. But the reality of information technology is exponential, and that makes a profound difference. If I take 30 steps linearly, I get to 30. If I take 30 steps exponentially, I get to a billion.”
So, rather than predicting the future based on our current technological status and looking into specific technological advancements, let’s take a broader look at how our civilisation may transform itself over the next millennia using just one parameter: energy.
The Physics of Advanced Civilisations
[This is an extract from Physics of the Impossible, by Michio Kaku]

It is […] possible to use physics to sketch out the outlines of possible civilisations in space. If we look at the rise of our own civilisation over the past 100,000 years, since modern humans emerged in Africa, it can be seen as the story of rising energy consumption. Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev has conjectured that the stages in the development of extraterrestrial civilisations in the universe could also be ranked by energy consumption. Using the laws of physics, he grouped the possible civilisations into three types:

  1. Type I civilisations: those that harvest planetary power, utilising all the sunlight that strikes their planet. They can, perhaps, harness the power of volcanoes, manipulate the weather, control earthquakes, and build cities on the ocean. All planetary power is within their control. 
  2. Type II civilisations: those that can utilise the entire power of their sun, making them 10 billion times more powerful than a Type I civilisation. The federation of Planets in Star Trek is a Type II civilisation. A Type II civilisation, in a sense, is immortal; nothing known to science, such as ice ages, meteor impacts, or even supernovae, can destroy it. (In case their mother star is about to explode, these beings can move to another star system, or perhaps even move their home planet.)
  3. Type III civilisations: those that can utilise the power of an entire galaxy. They are 10 billion times more powerful than a Type II civilisation. The Borg in Star Trek, the Empire in Star Wars, and the galactic civilisation in Asimov’s Foundation series correspond to a Type III civilisation. They have colonised billions of star systems and can exploit the power of the black hole at the centre of their galaxy. They freely roam the space lanes of the galaxy.

Kardashev estimated that any civilisation growing at a modest rate of a few percent per year in energy consumption will progress rapidly from one type to the next, within a matter of a few thousand years to tens of thousand of years.
As I’ve discussed in my previous books, our own civilisation qualifies a Type 0 civilisation (i.e. we use dead plants, oil and coal, to fuel our machines). We utilise only a tiny fraction of the sun’s energy that falls on our planet. But already we can see the beginnings of a Type I civilisation emerging on Earth. The Internet is the beginning of a Type I telephone system connecting the entire planet. The beginning of a Type I economy can be seen in the rise of the European Union, which in turn was created to compete with NAFTA. English is already the number one second language on the Earth and the language of science, finance, and business. I imagine it may become the Type I language spoken virtually by everyone. Local cultures and customs will continue to thrive in thousands of varieties on the Earth, but superimposed on this mosaic of peoples will be a planetary culture, perhaps dominated by youth culture and commercialism.

The transition between one civilisation and the next is far from guaranteed. The most dangerous transition, for example, may be between a Type 0 and a Type I civilisation. A Type 0 civilisation is still wracked with the sectarianism, fundamentalism, and racism that typified its rise, and is not clear whether or not these tribal and religious passions will overwhelm the transition. (Perhaps one reason that we don’t see Type I civilisations in the galaxy is because they never made the transition, i.e. they self-destructed. One day, as we visit other star systems, we may find the remains of civilisations that killed themselves in one way or another, e.g. their atmospheres became radioactive or too hot to sustain life.)

By the time a civilisation has reached Type III status it has the energy and know-how to travel freely throughout the galaxy and even reach the planet Earth. As in the movie 2001, such civilisations may well send self-replicating, robotic probes throughout the galaxy searching for intelligent life.
But a Type III civilisation would likely not be inclined to visit us or conquer us, as in the movie Independence Day, where such a civilisation spreads like a plague of locusts, swarming around planets to suck their resources dry. In reality, there are countless dead planets in outer space with vast mineral wealth they could harvest without the nuisance of coping with a restive native population. Their attitude toward us might resemble our own attitude toward an ant hill. Our inclination is not to bend down and offer the ants beads and trinkets, but simply to ignore them.

The main danger ants face is not that humans want to invade them or wipe them out. Instead it is simply that we will pave them over because they are in the way. Remember that the distance between a Type III civilisation and our own Type 0 civilisation is far more vast than the distance between us and the ants, in terms of energy usage.

Will our civilisation make the transition to Type I civilisation? Or are we going to self-destruct before we get anywhere seriously? I thought I’d better leave the conclusion to you.
In Star Trek, first contact is made when a civilisation discovers Warp Drive and could therefore begin to explore the universe. It doesn’t have to be Warp Drive, or does it? The question perhaps is… are we going to achieve so great a thing that is going to be noticed by another civilisation out there among the stars?
If so, when?

What I’d like to conclude with is a paragraph from another great book, Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card; this is a classic in children’s science fiction. Here Officer Graff reminds Ender that a nasty civilisation from a faraway galaxy almost wiped us out once; it would only be a matter of time before they come back to kill us all. Ender is afraid he might not live up to the officer’s expectations: what if I can’t be the best, Ender tells him and Graff replies:
“Then too bad. Look, Ender, I’m sorry if you’re lonely and afraid. But the buggers are out there. Ten billion, a hundred billion, a million billion of them, for all we know. With as many ships, for all we know. With weapons we can’t understand. And a willingness to use those weapons to wipe us out. It isn’t the world at stake, Ender. Just us. Just humankind. As far as the rest of the biosphere is concerned, we could be wiped out and it would adjust, it would get on with the next step in evolution. But humanity doesn’t want to die. As a species, we have evolved to survive. And the way we do it is by straining and straining and, at last, every few generations, giving birth to genius. The one who invents the wheel. And light. And flight. The one who builds a city, a nation, an empire. Do you understand any of this?”
Ender thought he did, but wasn’t sure, and so said nothing.


  1. A seriously compelling blog entry, great perspective and articulation throughout! :)

  2. Thank you for your comments :)
    This is a topic that I find really compelling and - yes, shivering too - by subscribing to this theory (of the Types of Civilisations) I just think we are so primitive. Generally we think we are so advanced with our technology and research, and that developments are happening exponentially. And yet, in the great scheme of things, in such incredibly powerful universe of possibilities, we are not even ants; we are dust.
    On the positive side, I do believe in the good and love that fills humankind and I'm sure we're more like stardust just waiting to turn into bright stars :)


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