We Didn’t Find Any Type 3s Because There Aren’t Any: Imagining Galactic Civilizations

Photo credit: longan drink / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA
Where all the galactic empires at???

This is actually not a ridiculous question. Lee Billings, an excellent science writer who specializes in the search-for-aliens beat, had a piece in Scientific American last month in which he speaks to Pennsylvania State University’s Jason Wright, an astronomer who did a novel kind of search. Rather than listen for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, a la SETI, his team instead took the temperature of about 100,000 galaxies to look for evidence of Type 3 civilizations, defined as a civilization that harvests all the energy from all the stars in an entire galaxy.

For perspective, Type 1 on this scale, the Kardashev Scale, is a civilization that has harvested all energy and resources from its home planet, and a Type 2 being one that consumes all the energy from a star. (I think it’s been posited somewhere that the Federation of Star Trek is about a Type 2, the Borg approach Type 3 status, while we contemporary humans live in a Type 0.7 civilization or so.) One guess is that this would be done by use of a “Dyson Sphere,” encapsulating an entire star in some sort of structure that harvests 100 percent of its energy. A Type 3 would do the same thing, but to an entire galaxy.

You think you’d notice something like that going on, right? Right. And they can’t find any.

“On Kardashev’s scale, a type 3 civilization uses energy equal to all the starlight produced by one galaxy,” Wright says. That would equate to an infrared-bright galaxy seemingly bereft of stars. “We looked at the nearest, largest 100,000 galaxies we could find in the [WISE] Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer] catalogue and we never saw that. One hundred thousand galaxies and not one had that signature. We didn’t find any type 3s in our sample because there aren’t any.”

Even if advanced civilizations do not build Dyson spheres, Wright’s null result also applies to any other energy-intensive “astroengineering” taking place at galactic scales.

I suppose this is somewhat discouraging, but it also isn’t all that surprising. My little brain can barely process even the imaginary idea of a civilization of such scope and power, so the fact that none turned up in a big survey doesn’t shock me. I don’t know if 100,000 galaxies counts as a statistically viable sample of all the galaxies in the universe, but I’d have to guess that if there were any Type 3s out there, they’d be so rare as to elude even such wide nets.

And, frankly, if there’s a civilization that’s powerful enough to eat up a galaxy, and close enough for us to detect it, I’d be a little worried that this civ might get an appetite for a Milky Way.

But Wright says they’re just not there, at all. Fine. But even if he’s right, it only rules out one kind of pan-galactic civ. There may be more than one way to rule a galaxy:

Drawing from Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quip that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” in 2011 the science fiction author Karl Schroeder coined an all-too-plausible reason for the apparent absence of aliens: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature.” In this view the future of technology would not consist of star-hopping civilizations spreading like wildfire through galaxies, disassembling planets and smothering suns, but rather of slow-growing cultures becoming more and more integrated with their natural environments, striving for ever-greater efficiencies and coming ever-closer to thermodynamic equilibrium. Simply put, profligate galaxy-spanning empires are unsustainable and therefore we do not see them. “SETI is essentially a search for technological waste products,” Schroeder has written. “Waste heat, waste light, waste electromagnetic signals—we merely have to posit that successful civilizations don’t produce such waste, and the failure of SETI is explained.”

14782846905_fee65df786_oIf there’s anything about the idea of things like Dyson Spheres that doesn’t ring true to me as a prospect for future tech, it’s how utterly industrial it is. It comes from a time when what we thought of as high-tech was giant computer mainframes and huge, powerful rockets. Freeman Dyson came up with the idea before we even had Star Wars and Star Trek, which themselves imagined a future with behemoth city-like starships, gargantuan space stations, and near-instant terraforming of worlds (and, eventually, the hyper-industrial Borg). For the idea of a Dyson Sphere, we have a massive industrial enterprise, the ultimate public works project, with structures of presumably enormous size and power forming a lattice or shell around an entire star or galaxy, sucking up the energy and venting out the waste.

It just seems, well, a little low-tech, doesn’t it?

I can’t speak to its relative probability, but Karl Schroeder’s view of a an advanced civilization integrating with, rather than consuming, its habitat makes more sense, especially if said civilization has managed to last long enough to get to this advanced stage. Any civilization that’s been machining its way up the Kardashev Scale might be more likely to exhaust its available resources more quickly, as opposed to a civilization that emphasizes equilibrium over growth. In this scenario, tech is small, geared to consume as little energy as possible, and population levels are more or less static, and there exists no drive to be fruitful, multiply, and conquer.

For Kardashev’s sake, how would we distinguish these two lines of civilizational ascent? Perhaps the numbers (Types 1 through 3 and so on) represent a Kardashev Industrial Scale, based on production and growth, while the other is the Kardashev Integrative Scale (or the Schroeder Scale?) based on ecological equilibrium and cultural advancement, signified with letters (Types A, B, C, and so on, where we modern humans would be very much sub-A).

Of course, we’d never be able to detect civs advanced on the Integrative Scale, unless they wanted to be detected, or reached out to us themselves. And since a hallmark of their advanced state is their utter lack of waste, it’s hard to see why they’d want to.

Smug hippies.

The Martians’ Singularity: Thoughts on “The War of the Worlds”

I’ve just read H.G. Wells’ original The War of the Worlds, and it was nothing like I expected. I have a completely unfounded prejudice about some of this classic sci-fi literature, wherein I presume it to be either vapid pulp or unnecessarily stuffy. (Frankenstein suffered a bit from the latter, I thought. Come on, Victor, get yourself together.) But just as I was delighted by my first reading of Jekyll and Hyde, I found War of the Worlds to be incredibly rich, suspenseful, and insightful.

Prophetic, even, as I suppose the best speculative fiction must often be. This blog’s fascination is with the intersection of technology and human life as it is lived, and in this book Wells gives us a glimpse of the future, where the Martians stand in for the marriage of human beings and machinery. Indeed, in a strange way Wells seems to be foreshadowing the Singularity, the moment that some believe is inevitable, when computing power becomes so great we fully merge with our machines, uploading our consciousness to the cloud for a kind of immortality.

Wells’ Martians were just about there. Of course, Wells had no concept of computers as we know them, but his Martians have an utter reliance on mechanization. It may be that they were physically adept on Mars itself, but on Earth the Martians, left to their own physical devices, were stultified by terrestrial gravity, and were almost totally dependent on their machines. But even if their bodies were better suited to Mars, Wells makes clear that their bodies had developed (“evolved” may not be quite correct since we don’t know whether natural selection was involved) to be physically limited to bare essentials: a powerful brain and nervous system along with grasping appendages, and almost nothing else. The machines handled the rest.

Wells’ narrator explains it this way:

[H]ere in the Martians we have beyond dispute the actual accomplishment of … a suppression of the animal side of the organism by the intelligence. To me it is quite credible that the Martians may be descended from beings not unlike ourselves, by a gradual development of brain and hands (the latter giving rise to the two bunches of delicate tentacles at last) at the expense of the rest of the body. Without the body the brain would, of course, become a mere selfish intelligence, without any of the emotional substratum of the human being.

So before we ever hear tales of heartless machines like HAL or emotion-starved androids like Data, here we have Wells giving us a near-perfect biological analogue: Intelligent creatures whose reliance on technology has allowed them, perhaps encouraged them, to jettison inefficient emotion. So really, the Martians are as close to the Singularity as anyone in the 19th century could have possibly invented.

What may be even more remarkable is how Wells refuses to cast the Martians as total villains. Yes, their aim is clearly to unfeelingly harvest Earth and humanity for their own consumption, but Wells ascribes no malice. The narrator, remember, has witnessed more of the horror of what the Martians are capable of than almost anyone alive, and yet he warns against judging them “too harshly,” because “we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought” upon indigenous human cultures and animal species. “Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”

What will the singularitarians and transhumanists think if our machines outpace us and, rather than bonding with us, decide to erradicate and harvest us just like Wells’ Martians? Will we be capable of making that kind of leap of perspective to understand our enemies?

There is a lesson, of course. The superior Martians, as ruthlessly efficient as they were, could not imagine that their undoing might come from beings too small to be seen by the naked eye, trusting in their superior firepower, and failing to fully grasp Earth’s biological nuance. What might we be neglecting as we bound toward the future during our own present technological revolution? What metaphorical (or literal) microbes are we overlooking?

But The War of the Worlds is not technophobic, for though it does present a powerful case for humility in the use of technology, it also admires it. The narrator makes several references to how humanity adopted much of the Martian technology all to its benefit after the invasion had failed. He speaks with esteem and awe of what the Martians had accomplished, and how they had developed genuinely meaningul efficiencies, not just in machinery, but in their own biology. For all the horror they brought, there is so much the Martians got right.

H.G. Wells may not have been a Ray Kurzweil of yesteryear, but I think he did at least intuit that humanity and technology were converging, even as far back as the 1800s. We may find that we achieve as a species much of what Wells’ invaders had, and may also be wise enough to avoid their fatal level of hubris. If Wells’ story proves prophetic, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, those Martians were us.