Monday, October 19, 2015

Climbing the Kardashev scale

Astronomers using the Kepler telescope have noted something odd about star KIC 8462852. It has some very large changes in its brightness. Most likely these changes have random, natural causes, but still amongst the possibilities is the chance that these changes are in fact artificial- that there are space aliens and that they have technology that can harvest energy on a stellar scale. Cosmologists have often speculated on how we might recognise a civilisation beyond our own solar system, and they have applied different criteria to identify the level of development of any intelligence that we may encounter. These criteria were first suggested by a Russian cosmologist in the 1960s and are therefore known as the Kardashev scale. Broadly speaking Kardashev suggests that the level of development of any given civilisation would depend on the ability to harness energy. Thus Level I civilisations could control the whole energy provided by their home planet, Level II could control energy at the stellar level and Level III at the galactic level. The suggestion is that the fluctuations of KIC 8462852 could be consistent with the power use of a Level II Kardashev civilization.

Planet Earth is still a Level 0 civilisation, since we do not yet have control- or even understanding- over the entire planet. Yet by some measures we are not so far away from making the jump to a Level I civilisation. The emergence of the Internet as a near universal tool for information sharing and the beginnings of a global consciousness through the emergence of English as a common language has led some cosmologists to estimate that Earth is quite close to the threshold of the conditions required for a Level I civilisation- about a 0.7 Certainly the dramatic acceleration in technology and the processing of information has made the pace of change in many areas move from a geometric progression to a logarithmic one. Yet as we approach the threshold it is clear that we face clear dangers and even the threat that we could regress to a more primitive level.

The progress of the past century rests on three linked critical pillars, all of which depend on Science. The first is the primacy of rational argument. The second is the need for scepticism and critical thinking, the third is the need for political and social openness. All have been challenged and none is yet secure. 

Rationalism is challenged by the fanaticism of blind faith. This has come not merely from the brutal primativism of such international actors as the so-called Islamic state, but also from within democratic societies where irrational populism achieves electoral success by making emotive statements that are not backed by evidence but by mere assertion. Yet, despite this enormous weakness, democratic societies maintain a competitive advantage by being generally open societies. Closed societies fail because, even if they attain short-run technological and economic progress, they lack the institutional flexibility to advance beyond the middle income gap. Lack of openness leads to corruption and in the end, without drastic institutional reform, the country loses competitiveness. Democratic societies are still vulnerable to corruption, but closed societies lack the critical faculty that supports the rule of law. Rule of Law is the application of rationalism and scepticism in the economic and social sphere. Scepticism is the killer app of the scientific method and it is only by applying this key scientific method that technological or indeed any other advances can be made.

So looking at the situation in the second decade of the third millennium, what conclusions might we draw about Planet Earth? 

Firstly we should not lose sight of the extraordinary youth of our technology and of our economic, social and political constructs. It is less than a century since the majority of humans were living in conditions that differed little from the iron age of two thousand years ago- indeed there are still some humans who are living lives essentially unchanged since the emergence of H. Sapiens sapiens in its latest form about 70,000 years ago. In the life of our solar system, never mind the Galaxy or the Universe, that is an extremely short period of time. The gathering of knowledge that first began with the invention of writing about 5200 years ago, that was accelerated with the spread of printing in the fifteenth century and which now is the core of the information repository of the Worldwide Web is now growing exponentially. In one generation we have been able to create and store more information that in the previous approximately 90 generations since the invention of writing. It is only in the past few decades that newspapers and then broadcasting opened up large number of individual horizons beyond the local, it is only in the past few years that a huge number of individuals can access the stored repository of knowledge- the Worldwide Web.

Yet the emergence of a global consciousness and identification that must surely proceed the crossing of the threshold to a Kardashev Level I civilisation is still nascent at best. Rationalism, scepticism and openness are far from universally accepted. Economic globalisation is resisted - often fiercely- even when those who resist still embrace global trends and tastes, from popular music to popular fashion. Where this resistance is rational, it lies in the question of whether or not global systems or institutions, where appropriate, can resist corruption and permit diversity and openness. To my mind a degree of scepticism about future global institutions- whether corporate and economic or political and regulatory- is an essential part of a political tool box. However, it seems to me that the power of global economies of scale will drive drastically greater global collaboration, irrespective of resistance. Globalisation is already becoming a fact, the point is that individuals and social and political groups, rather than attempting to deny the process should instead seek to impose the scientific restraints of rationalism, openness and especially scepticism upon these emerging forces. In a sense there is a model for this already- the Internet, which is not the product of an organising and presiding genius, but a systemic collaboration between individual billions of human beings. 

When one begins to apply the measuring stick of rationalism, scepticism and openness, it becomes suprisingly easy to identify the threats to progress on the Kardashev scale. There are obvious traps on the road to a global civilisation. Clearly the irrationality of both populist poliitics and obscurantist, universalist religion are the enemy of the kind of tolerant scepticism that would be required to create a sustainable Kardashev I civilisation. 

The transition to a global civilisation will also clearly see a revolution in the current global system of largely nineteenth and twentieth century "nation states". Yet rather than attempt to create single institutional presiding force, it seems clear that openness will need to rest on a diversity of forces that function nonetheless in a rational way. Global borders have been eroding for some time- the ability to travel has meant not only greater awareness of other parts of the globe, but has moved millions of people in large waves of migrations. Since the sixteenth century, when the New World was opened to Europe, Europeans have moved out from their own continent, now there is a smaller, but still significant exchange of populations into Europe. Those countries which have been most open: the USA, Canada, Australia, UK, Singapore, Sweden and others are those that have reaped the greatest benefits. Successful integration of new populations requires tolerance on both sides, and is not easy to manage- yet the welcome given to Syrian refugees by, for example Germany, suggests that the old idea of ethnic exclusivity in nation states is now much weaker. The conditions of rule of law, tolerance (openness) and rationalism are not values specific to any given state, but are rather universal. We may progress from a world of nations to a world of values.

Corruption and a closed society, of the kind that the massively rearming Russia exemplifies, are also clear threats. Yet Russia, by rejecting global trade and attempting to withdraw into a kind of economic autarky is making itself weaker. Even if Putin launches a global war, which is what his rearmament and rhetoric implies, Russia would be defeated in the longer term, simply because his economic system lacks the strength that complexity and diversity provides: his bet on oil is already a dud, and the growing economic weakness of Russia is the inevitable result of the corruption of Putinism. For as long as NATO and others have the ability to neutralise the threat of Putin to the point where he can not launch a global war, then with each day that passes, the corruption, brutality and incompetence of late Putinism will ensure that Russia will either fail, or under a more enlightened leadership, change to a more peaceful course. Collaboration is stronger than truculent isolation- and explains the difference between North and South Korea. Nevertheless these weaker societies still have the capacity to use violence and thus prevent the advance to Kardashev I. 

Yet for globalists, the main "what if?" is China. Since the emergence of Deng Xiaoping after the arrest of the Gang of Four in October 1976 China has created a drastically more open economy and with it an increasingly open society. Yet the political system still rests on the authoritarian and closed rule of the Chinese Communist party. However, in sharp contrast to Putin, the Chinese leadership has fully embraced integration into the global economy. The Chinese leadership is rational and pragmatic, but without the restraint of openness and the rule of law it is also increasingly corrupt. To a degree a certain Confucian traditions have overlaid the political construct with a thin veneer of restraint, but in general institutions are not restrained and a certain ruthlessness is the primary facet of modern China. Without greater openness and the rule of law, China too may end up being caught in the middle income trap. China is still at the crossroads. 

What then of the West? It is fashionable to decry the liberal democratic world as selfish, greedy and often lazy. Certainly the corruption that the UK enables through its banking system is profoundly immoral. The irrationalism of certain extreme right-wing Americans reminds us that if Fascism were ever to come to the United States, it would come "wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross" as Sinclair Lewis is supposed to have said. Yet the fact is that the tide is turning against these populists. the blow-hard absurdism of Donald Trump will ensure that he will never be elected. For as long as free exchange of information and goods is regulated by generally uncorrupt laws, then the West has a killer app that ensures both innovation and expansion. Despite a highly imperfect political discourse, the social and economic conditions of democracies still permit the innovation and openness that advancing to Kardashev Level I requires. Closed societies are too inflexible to be technological leaders in the longer term.

The progress towards the threshold of a Kardashev Level I planetary civilisation is clearly beset with threats. Yet, were the KIC 8462852 anomaly in fact prove to be of intelligent origin it could have a truly galvanising effect on our Sol-3 world. Even if KIC 8462852 is a natural anomaly, there is still a binary choice: either extra-terrestrial civilisation exists or it doesn't. As we now identify millions, even billions of new worlds, it is far more likely than not that sooner or later we will encounter some signs of life in the Universe. We may face entirely new realms of knowledge and understanding: the mystery of death, the quantum reality, the truth of consciousness. A Kardashev Level II civilisation may have answers to many of our most profound questions. Arthur C Clarke once wrote that "any technology, sufficiently advanced, would be indistinguishable from magic". As we understand that in order to cross the threshold to a sustainable Level I civilisation we must work with our better natures: tolerance, openness, rationality, then how much more must be needed to gain Level II. Higher civilisations may require positive morality. Surely a Stellar or Galactic civilisation, in order to be sustainable, would need to be fundamentally benign in order to retain the consent of its members. 

A Universe-level civilisation would be probably be then indistinguishable from God.

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