Thursday, September 4, 2008

A 100 Year Design Challenge

We are about 3/4th of the way to completing one of the biggest design challenges facing the planet - to become a Type I civilization. Carl Sagan estimated that we are at .7 on the scale toward reaching that goal. This sounds better, and may be more accurate, than just saying we are currently a Type 0 civilization.

What does this mean? The main concept is attributed to Nikolai Kardashev, (left) the Soviet astrophysicist, who in 1964 outlined three levels of civilization. The Kardashev scale is a general method of classifying how technologically advanced a civilization is. The scale has three categories called Type I, II, and III. These are based on the amount of usable energy a civilization has at its disposal, and the degree of space colonization. In general terms, a Type I civilization has achieved mastery of the resources of its home planet, Type II of its solar system, and Type III of its galaxy.

Human civilization is currently somewhere below Type I, as it is able to harness only a portion of the energy that is available on Earth. The current state of human civilization has thus been named Type 0. Although intermediate values were not discussed in Kardashev's original proposal, Carl Sagan argued that they could easily be defined by interpolating and extrapolating the values given above. In 1973, he calculated humanity's civilization type to be 0.7, in relationship to Kardashev's model for Types 0 and I.

It is estimated that within 100 years we should be able to achieve Type I status. A Type I civilization would be able to marshal energy resources for communications on a planet-wide scale, equivalent to the entire present power consumption of the human race, or about 1016 watts. A Type II civilization would surpass this by a factor of approximately ten billion, making available 1026 watts, by exploiting the total energy output of its central star. Freeman Dyson, for example, has shown in general terms how this might be done with a Dyson sphere. Finally, a Type III civilization would have evolved far enough to tap the energy resources of an entire galaxy. This would give a further increase by at least a factor of 10 billion to about 1036 watts.

By extension, Kardashev Type IV civilization would be one that consumes the power of an entire galactic supercluster. Kardashev Type V, of course, would be a civilization that occupies the entire universe.

Click on the heading above to see a video of physicist Michio Kaku talking about Type I, II. and III civilizations.

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