In 1964, astronomer Nikolai Kardashev proposed a classification system of technological advancements applicable to both ourselves and other cultures that may be present in the universe. This classification system, originally featuring three categories, has since been unofficially expanded to cover hypothetical super civilizations that may be possible, along with our own sort of sad classification of Type 0, or as Carl Sagan put it as type 0.7. Kardashev’s thinking for the system is straightforward. If you assume that energy consumption will grow for advancing culture, they will then seek to generate more energy to satisfy that need. The scale is entirely hypothetical, given that we’ve never seen an advanced alien civilization, and may not reflect how advanced civilizations actually behave, this is only if they use energy as we do. That’s somewhat of a big assumption and may represent an Achilles Heel for the Kardashev scale. More on that in a minute.
Kardashev’s original scale starts with a Type I civilization. This is a civilization that can use and store most of the energy available to a planet, specifically that coming from its sun. We’re not to this level yet, which is why we rank at Type 0. We still use fossil fuels extensively and do not have a valid method of harnessing and storing all of the energy forms available to us, especially that coming from the sun. As we progress and eventually develop fusion energy and better methods of harnessing geothermal and solar energy, we will begin to make that transition. This should happen over the next few hundred years, though should we hit a technological Singularity, it would probably be sooner. Type II status is a ways off for us no matter what. This is a civilization that can harness the entire energy generation potential of their star. One way to do this is a Dyson Sphere or swarm that can allow you to harvest most of the energy the star itself produces by encasing it or swarming it, with energy collectors.
Type III is a culture that not only can do that with a single star but with most of the stars in an entire galaxy. Kardashev ended the scale there, but some since have suggested two other levels may possible. And this is where it gets mysterious.
A Type IV culture would be able to harness the power of an entire universe. In 2003, Zoltan Galantai published a paper that detailed what one of these super cultures might be like. This also gets into the much deeper subject of if we were looking at aliens, would we know we were looking at aliens? Recognition is a serious enough problem for types I through III, but far worse for IV and above and here’s why.
A number of scientists over the years have pointed out that the expectation to find alien Dyson Swarms and radio beacons in space is due to cultural bias. We might build those things, but aliens may not. B. I. Panovkin pointed out that when we search for alien life, we don’t really have a choice but to hope that we find an Earth-like one so that we can comprehend it. Or as Stanislaus Lem pointed out, that problem may even be more mundane.
He put it in these terms. You could measure someone’s sugar levels in their bodily fluids and if you know that higher levels indicate that someone recently ate a large number of sweets, then you would know that you were seeing an artificial effect. However, if you didn’t know that higher levels indicated anything out of the ordinary, you would only see sugars that are indistinguishable from those in nature and you’d have no idea that anything was amiss. Applied to exobiology, this would be if the activities of an alien civilization were nearly identical to a known natural phenomenon. This is a simplification, but it hammers the point home. If you don’t know the ground rules that govern what you’re looking at, then you may miss it.
And that’s the problem with a Type IV civilization. As Galantai’s paper shows, you probably wouldn’t recognize a Type IV civilization because you’ve got nothing to compare it to at that level of sheer power to manipulate something, in this case, the universe itself. What may appear natural to us as part of the fabric and behaviour of the universe may actually be artificial and produced by a super civilization.
The final class would be Type V, which would be a super-civilization that controlled the power of multiple universes. Little to nothing can be said of this class of civilization, only that they would be incomprehensibly powerful, trans-universal, and so far advanced that any trace of them is unlikely to be recognized since they would set all the ground rules. This particular class of civilization would, however, have implications on Simulation theory.
There have been many other proposed modifications to the Kardashev scale, and some question as to whether energy is really a factor at all. Civilizations may do the opposite of what we expect and miniaturize and use very little energy. Kardashev believed that the need for communication would drive the use of energy, but nothing says a civilization would want to communicate, or even care about the universe at large.
Also possible are methods of communication that we cannot yet foresee with our current understanding of physics. The bottom line is that until we actually see an advanced civilization, or become one ourselves, all we can really do is hypothesize. But one thing remains curious. Other than our own 0.7 rating on the Kardashev Scale, we’ve never seen any evidence of any of the other classes being present in the universe.
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