What do alien civilizations look like from afar?

This is a pretty good description of the Kardashev Scale of civilization energy usage.

I initially thought the video overestimated how close we are to being a Type I civilization, but then I remembered that the whole scale is logarithmic, so maybe not.

It also mentioned that we might “choose” to build a megastructure like a Dyson swarm.  That makes it sound like maybe a central committee might decide it’s a good idea.  It seems more likely that people will eventually start putting energy collection stations in orbit around the sun, and that over time these stations proliferate until most of the energy of the sun is being captured.

Kardashev himself stopped at Type III, believing that Type IV and higher wasn’t possible.  I actually think a Type IV itself may be possible, but going higher seems dubious under the laws of physics as we currently understand them.  As the video mentions, a Type Omega might seem indistinguishable from God.

The video mentions toward the end that we can’t rule out that as we become more advanced, the idea of these expansions might become obsolete.  It seems likely that we will eventually be modifying ourselves.  It may be far cheaper in terms of energy usage to modify ourselves to use the available energy more efficiently than to keep expanding until we’re using the energy of an entire galaxy, or more.  It might be that the most advanced civilizations take this path, eschew expansion, turn inward, and close themselves off into virtual heavens.

Except, we’ve never been a species that acts with any kind of unanimity.  Even if large portions of humanity decided to take the inward path, it doesn’t seem likely all of us would.  When we expand the scope to every civilization that might arise, the probability that all of them choose the inward path seems even less likely.

But as the video mentions, we don’t see evidence for Type III civilizations anywhere near us.  Years ago, I shared the results of a study that looked for Type III civilizations in 100,000 galaxies.  It found 50 possibilities, which doesn’t sound like much, but might be a realistic proportion, although the evidence sounded pretty limited, even for those 50.

From what I’ve read, Type II civilization should also be detectable, as odd sources of infrared radiation with limited visible light, or by other means.  I don’t know if there’s been any comprehensive attempt to discover these.  Occasionally there have been false alarms (such as “Tabby’s star”), but they’ve all turned out to be explainable in natural terms.

And, as I’ve mentioned several times, unless interstellar travel is impossible, it seems like if there were any number of other civilizations out there, at least some of them should have reached us by now.  Actually they should have been here long before we evolved.  But if intelligent civilization producing life is very rare, if there are only 50 per 100,000 galaxies, which I think is likely, then we’re seeing the results we should expect.

Unless of course I’m missing something?

31 thoughts on “What do alien civilizations look like from afar?

    1. Thanks. I’m actually skeptical of plant cognition. There’s just too much missing. But we definitely can’t rule out the possibility of an alien intelligence which operates on the same time periods as plants.

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  1. I’ll quote what I wrote in my most recent post: “The thing is, I think if we don’t grow up, then we don’t go out into space. I think our success exploring space is directly tied to our maturing as a species. The project requires massive social will and long-term commitment.”

    Humanity, as it seems right now to me, isn’t going into space in any big way any time soon. We lack the unity and will, not to mention the maturity. (If The Expanse paints the right picture, maybe that’s for the best.)

    As we’ve discussed in the past, I think there is good reason to suspect we’re it in this galaxy, and possibly even in the visible universe.

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    1. My own suspicion is that as long as it does require social will, it probably won’t happen. Space needs an economic incentive, similar to the spice trade at the beginning of the Age of Exploration. If one is found, it’ll probably happen. But until then, I don’t see us doing much, other than robotic exploration. At least unless there are technological breakthroughs that make it much cheaper.

      I think The Expanse universe is really geared up to be a stage for stories rather than a serious attempt at prediction. Ty Franck has pretty much said as much. I’m sure it includes some of his thoughts on how it might happen, but with compromises for story.

      We’re on the same page in terms of the galaxy, and I do agree it’s a possibility that we’re along in the visible universe.

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      1. An economic incentive would likely do it. (Like Dune’s Spice.) Given the likely cost of space travel, it’s hard to imagine what would be worth it. Even Spice was just one planet — we’d need a generally Good Reason to go out there.

        Maybe if we were convinced the sun was going to explode in 500 years…

        I just meant the oft-repeated theme of The Expanse that humans are the same old shits even in the 24th century. If remains true, maybe it’ll be just as well if we end up stuck here.

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        1. If we detected an alien civilization anywhere, or an Earth like planet within some plausible distance, it might light a fire under us.

          I think The Expanse is actually pretty conservative in how it sees humanity in the future. It downplays artificial intelligence and ignores genetic engineering, keeping things to that old time space opera feel, at this point, an old classic vision of the future. It makes for a very human, enjoyable story. But I seriously doubt we’ll be the same old shits. I don’t know what we’ll be by then. Possibly better, or possibly far worse, but unlikely the same.

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        2. It seems to me there’s an unavoidable sequence in determining human shittiness.

          1. Invent or adopt an arbitrary moral standard.

          2. Compare that standard with observable reality.

          3. Become vexed that observable reality does not conform to our arbitrary standards.

          I wonder if, perhaps, this isn’t all a bit silly.

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  2. The usual human-centric speculations for the most part. Alien civilizations must be bigger versions of our selves. Very much like AI speculation where AI will be smarter versions of ourselves with all of our traits including dissimulation and quest for power.

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      1. The point is that it is hard to imagine.

        But we could probably get ideas from the variety of life on Earth. There are many species that make themselves inconspicuous and hide with camouflage. Their worlds may look dead and lifeless. They would not likely call attention to themselves with enormous constructions and high energy emissions. Or, if they did, the products of their civilizations would look like natural events, such as quasars or pulsars, or perhaps they would hide in the range of the natural events so they couldn’t be detected.

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        1. Camouflage does happen a lot in nature. Most animals have evolved an appearance that makes them blend in with their background.

          But I think the point the video makes is that if you’re using a lot of energy, the laws of physics pretty much dictate that there will be observable consequences. Any irreversible processing results in increased entropy, typically seen as emissions of some form or another.

          As I noted in the post, one possibility is they don’t use that much energy.

          Another is we don’t understand the laws of physics as well as we think we do. That’s always possible. But we don’t really have the ability to meaningfully reason past unknown unknowns.

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          1. Yes, you wouldn’t create a civilization that uses a lot of energy if you wanted to be hidden. From almost any standpoint, smaller and less conspicuous would be better unless you could mask the energy usage in some way.

            If you are concerned about other hostile intelligence, you want to be hidden. If you are predatory, you want to be hidden – the tiger’s stripes are camouflage and the tiger crouches and moves slowly before it strikes. If you are concerned about your potential undo influence on other life (prime directive sort of thing), you want to be hidden.

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          2. Could be. Although our planet has been a sitting duck for 4.5 billion years, with signs of life detectable across interstellar distances for at least the last 600 million years. It seems odd to wait until we could put up at least a token defense.

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          3. You are trying to apply human thought processes to aliens.

            Suppose the galaxy is like a bee hive. When a new queen hatches, it goes and kills the other queens before they can hatch. It doesn’t kill all of the other bees. The aliens only bother with what they perceive to be a potential threat.

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          4. I didn’t know that about queen bees. Interesting. Although it makes sense. There can be only one queen.

            But the queen doesn’t kill the bees because she will need to exploit them. Are we being exploited? If so, it seems to be in a way we don’t even realize, and we’re back into unknown unknown speculation.

            In the absence of such exploitation, if everyone in the galaxy is that paranoid, and we’re talking about some kind of anticipatory intelligence, far safer to just wipe out biospheres before they have any chance of becoming a threat. Which implies we should have been wiped out long ago.

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          5. Some great ideas of SciFi which have probably already been done.

            It would make sense to leave a biosphere alone perhaps , sort of like a farm, until it needs to be exploited or some threat (like us) to the biosphere arises like a swarm of locusts might threaten a farm.

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          6. Being monitored is, of course, exactly what many UFOologists do suggest.

            Ancient alien theorist also believe this has been going on for thousands of years. 🙂

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  3. A couple of final thoughts on this.

    There is really almost no basis to argue how many civilizations exist or have existed besides us. Even if we have a good estimate of potentially life supporting worlds, we don’t have a clue how many civilizations could arise from them.

    Saying that, I think the most rational course for a civilization would be to stay small, be low impact, and remain inconspicuous. In fact, a civilization might need to learn to do that to survive without outstripping available resources on its home planet. Dyson spheres and such are fantasy. A civilization that achieved near physical immortality would especially need to stay small. It might spread throughout the galaxy (and that might only make sense in the context of near immortality) but it would hide and camouflage itself. There would concern about the possible contact with hostile species but also concern about what impact they could have on developing intelligent life.

    Earth to them might be like a park or wilderness area. They would interfere with it as little as possible for the same reasons we set aside wilderness areas – an appreciation of the diversity of life and the possibilities that something of value could come from the diversity. They would monitor and perhaps take “camping” trips but, otherwise, leave it mostly alone.

    So this wouldn’t be inward facing but it wouldn’t be the expansive, energy consuming monster that would easily detected from light years away either.

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  4. Interesting video. The base assumption in the video is that an increase in the use of energy by civilizations is a progress. Progress is a subjective term, specific to us, humans. Per Oxford dictionaries [1] progress is “forward or onward movement toward a destination.”.

    Definitely, if an energy consumption does not serve any other goal, then an increase, decrease, or stabilizing of an energy consumption, – then an energy consumption by itself is a fake destination.

    Kardashev scale is still in place but the use of energy is just a tool or method to reach some other, then energy consumption, goal, or goals. A lot depends on how we or aliens define those goals.
    Let us look at the current situation on our planet.

    Humankind in its current form does not have a mutual goal for a whole mankind for any future, short-term or long-term. If we start from here, then it is really hard to imagine aliens’ goals.

    Without assumptions about their goals we, probably, just deceiving ourselves that we can understand what could go on in this area. I think to consider any scenarios we need first to define potential goals of civilizations, do a tough critique of it, and then think about scenarios.

    1. https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/progress

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    1. That’s a good point, but I wonder if we can assume the aliens would have one set of goals. If they’re like us, they’d have all kinds of goals, with the goals of some factions being incompatible with each other. But all life needs energy, and our technology enables us to do things, but at the cost of ever more energy. If you look at human civilization, it’s been a tale of increasing energy usage.

      Will that continue? In particular, will it continue until we’re using all the energy of our star? Hard to say. As both the video and I note, it might be that an advanced civilization eventually modifies itself to live with relatively modest amounts of energy, amounts that might not be detectable across interstellar, much less intergalactic distances.

      Although the question is whether all humans, much less all civilizations out there, would do that. If even some small percentage do it, we should be able to detect them.

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