In 1964, Nickolai Kardashev proposed a classification system – the Kardashev Scale – for identifying how advanced a civilization is based on its ability to harness and use power. In this system, a Type I civilization has the ability to harness the sun’s energy that reaches Earth, a Type II has the ability to harness the entire power of the sun, and a Type III can harness the power of the galaxy. Other scientists have since extended the system to describe civilizations in finer detail. Under these extensions, we are living today in a Type 0 civilization in which the power we harness comes primarily from oil, gas, coal, and other non-renewables. Futurists predict we will achieve Type I status in roughly 100 years.
Why is this important, and what does this have to do with aliens? As civilizations transition from Type 0 to Type I, their ability to destroy themselves increases. Geopolitical conflicts, extremism, and other causes of violence have greater consequence when energy reserves at such scale are available to do harm. This potential is often used as an explanation as to why we have not seen aliens to date. Most civilizations simply do not make it to Type I.
While this sounds like science fiction, there is some sense to it. As we approach Type I status and develop technologies that increase our mastery over the sun’s energy, it is essential that we keep that power under lock and key. This means keeping critical infrastructure safe and secure from malicious attack or accident. Unfortunately, we are not even close to this level of protection. In fact, many process engineers with whom I meet admit this is the situation today.
Maybe holding the goal of becoming a Type I civilization is too lofty or theoretical to be meaningful and therefore not sufficient to drive practical action. Perhaps, but I think it does provide some value by shining a different spotlight on a problem in need of greater attention – the control systems running today’s energy plants are too exposed to cyber attack. If you think that it’s possible we will achieve Type I status in the next century, then future generations of these same control systems will manage power we can only imagine right now. It’s about time we learned how to secure them.
How real is the danger? Will we win where other planetary civilizations have seemingly failed?