The Kardashev scale

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Nikolai Kardashev is a Russian astronomer who in 1964 published a theory by which advanced civilisations could be classified according to the use that they make of energy. His scale states that there are three stages or types called I, II, and III. Such civilisations would be able to make efficient use of their planetary, star and galactic energy, respectively. It is - of course - a speculation, buta useful one because it lets us understand how a civilisation might go beyond the limits of its own planet and to the stars... perhaps even us.

The fact that something has not yet occurred doesn't mean that we cannot think about it, or how it could happen if it happens at all; besides, we might just be part of history and things may be happening without us seeing the facts or wanting to know about them: Our human civilisation is advancing little by little as we acquire new skills. But virtually in all cases we need energy in some form or another to put those skills into practice, and even to learn them. Knowing how to use energy is essential to our civilisation - and conceivably for any other, for that matter - for any sort of technological development: Grinding cereal to make flour in the most primitive of mills requires the use of animal, human, water or wind force. That means energy expenditures, and so would entail opening a wormhole to send a spaceship to a distant part of the universe -or other universe. It all boils down to knowing how to use the energy resources at hand, and that's the basis of Kardashev's scale: To classify civilisations according to the way they use their available energy. Since the first human used the first stone to do something on purpose, we have been learning how to use our energy. There began a path that Kardashev and later others described, which could really take us to immortality.

If we take human civilisation as our archetype - we have no other for the time being - and compare it with biological evolution, geological events or astronomical time scales, we can conclude with relative ease that civilisations surge and evolve rather fast: A million years is nothing in the cosmos, and that a little bit less than what took nature to produce humans from primates. So, even if it takes us a million years to explore and colonise the Milky Way, that would be very little time when things are put in perspective, and that's a pessimistic estimation made by those who think about these things taking into account the scale of Kardashev; things can go a lot faster because scientific and technological advance can sometimes make very significant leaps. Discoveries and inventions can propel progress far beyond the wildest dreams of discoverers and inventors that, already with an uncommon imagination saw the way for a paradigm shift. Today it would be extremely strange to attempt to explain to the Wright brothers that there are planes so big that their original flight in Kitty Hawk could take place entirely inside the fuselage of one such machines.

Freeman Dyson is a scientist born in the U.S.A. Who calculated how long it would take humankind to progress in order to become a type I, II and III civilisation, according to the scale of Kardashev. He concluded that a type one stage could be attained in 200 years, type two in 3.200 years and stage three in about 5.800 years, and other scientists like Kaku and Barrows expanded the original scale by putting forward the notion of other civilisation types, such as 0, IV, V, VI, etc.

Kardashev scale types: :idea: Type 0: A type zero civilisation is a concept added later to the original scale of Kardashev, that measures the advancement of planetary civilisations based on the uses of energy. A type zero civilisation would master planetary energy only partially. According to Kaku, humankind would at this time be crossing between a type zero and a type one civilisation. A type zero civilisation could be characterised for the use of certain propulsion means such as chemical rockets, ionic engines, fission energy and electromagnetic propulsion. Such civilisations would not be able to survive the majority of interstellar, galactic or universal catastrophes unless they advance further. :idea: Type I: According to Kardashev, a type one civilisation is planetary by definition and has managed to use all its planetary energy efficiently. It is able to manipulate the planet's energy in such a way as to avoid major natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, etc. According to Kaku, its propulsion systems would likely be based on technologies such as ram-jet engines and photon energy. Earth has about 175 petawatts of power available; this means that in order for us to become a type I civilisation we should be able to transfer that much energy (power is energy transfer over time.) :idea: Type II: According to Kardashev, a type two civilisation has evolved from a type one level and is able to obtain energy from its sun(s) efficiently, with an estimated output of a billion trillion ergs per second. Such a civilisation would have explored its own solar system and be able to reach neighbouring stars. According to Kaku, such a civilisation would be dedicated to the exploration of its own galaxy, probably suing some sort of Von Neumann machine, implying the widespread use of self-repairing, self-reproducing robots capable of exploring different star systems without the use of FTL technologies, but at very high speeds. A type two civilisation would master the use of antimatter, nanotechnology and artificial life. The power available in a star like our sun is about 4x10 exp(26) Watts. This is what a type II civilisation would get. :idea: Type III: According to Kardashev, a type three civilisation has of course, passed the stage of a type two and is for the most part and at a universal scale, immortal or at least highly able to survive most kinds of catastrophes because it is able to use energy coming from different stars or suns. All in all, a type III would be a civilisation on a galactic scale, basically because taking advantage of different stars would mean an interplanetary ability to travel and hence, ultimately they would explore their whole galaxy. Optimistic estimations say that humankind could reach this stage of advancement in about six thousand years, while pessimistically, in one million. According to Kaku, such a civilisation would have transportation technologies based on the use of Planks's energy and only a catastrophic, universe-wide event could destroy it completely. The energy available in a galaxy is variable and depends on its characteristics; there are smaller and bigger galaxies, but certainly, the power that a type II civilisation would get would mean taking advantage of all the energy available at a galactic level. :idea: Type IV: The idea of a type IV civilisation (and others of higher development value) was put forward by Barrows to supplement the original scale created by Kardashev, by which the progress of civilisations could be measured. According to Barrows, a type IV civilisation would be able to manipulate the structure of the universe itself and those of higher development grade would do the same incrementally until eventually, they would be able to travel outside it in order to explore or survive. This would lead to inter-universe travel, parallel realities and other exotic concepts. Such a civilisation would truly be immortal.

Earth: 0,72

According to the latest data, we are currently passing from an essentially type 0 to a type I civilisation. Carl Sagan suggested a formula to calculate intermediate evolutionary states between the Kardashev types. The Russian scientists only considered three types which are too loose or broad to be useful to understand our evolution as a civilisation, so Sagan created his formula based on which we can say that humankind would reach level 0,72 a decade after the beginning of the XXI century. Sagan's formula is:

K = [log(10)W - 6] / 10

Being K the index level of each civilisation and W its power output measured in Watts. We should remember that Dyson estimated that we would become a type I civilisation in about two centuries. Sagan also suggested that the amount of information available to a civilisation, measured in bits (there is another unit of measurement for information, called the "Shannon" but "bits" have virtually taken over), should be considered as part of Kardashev's scale. So, the north American astronomer implied that the scale should become bidimensional, and while it is true that there is a correlation between information and progress, data, which constitute information, depends on energy. The better the technologies available to manipulate energy, also the better will be the means used to deal with data and information: Sumerian s built the first libraries in our history but they would have been unable to gather as much information as we have today in any library simply because they didn't not have the means to produce, transmit and store it. Their technology would not have allowed for that.

A computer could not be built in the nineteenth century despite the fact that researcher like Babbage and Lovelace already had grasped the concept but could not make it out of what was available in technological terms; their purely mechanical designs proved almost flawless more than a hundred years after, when machines had already achieved the level of precision required to produce the components required by the designer. However, in the meantime, electricity was developed as a source of energy and electronic computers found their way into our society, providing for even better computational means.For every scientific or technological development it is necessary to have energy in an adequate form and magnitude; the development of technologies for manipulating energy is the cardinal form of advancement. For this reason, we should not assume that since it took us about twelve thousand years since the advent of agriculture to achieve a fairly modes 0,72 mark in the scale, it would take us a directly proportional amount of time in the future to reach other stages. Things tend to accelerate once the right developments for a paradigm jump are put in place much like a puzzle that is finally solved once a key piece has been placed rightly.

Involution and efficiency increase:

Two things seem not to have been taken into account in this scale but are nevertheless significant: One is that an increase rate of use of energy does not necessarily mean progress: A civilisation in decadence might become more inefficient, but seen fro afar, their higher rate of usage in order to achieve less than before might look like growth. Such civilisations might be losing also in other fields but not in energy production, such as a nation fighting in a desperate war to survive and using everything at hand. There are many historical examples of such situations: The Mayas and the Third Reich were at their highest output rates in scientific and technological terms during the last stages of their existence.

On the other hand, the Kardashev scale is open to misinterpretation: It can be assumed that it advances, a civilisation would use its resources more efficiently, so, what would seem as optimal from the perspective of an observer within a 0,72 civilisation regarding what a type III level should be, later on could easily become outdated and could become a characteristic of a type II civilisation due to the fact that higher efficiency in the use of energy could well translate in otherwise unsuspected progress. Moreover: Advancement requires in all cases an efficient management of resources, and prevision is one of the characteristics of any good manager. Thus, it becomes quite possible that any advancing civilisation would start looking for new resources long before it actually runs out of what it has in the present, meaning that things like FTL propulsion could be achieved before the energy level considered necessary for that actually becomes a possibility on the basis of searching for such sources.

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