Energy and innovation (Questions)

It seems clear that the ability we have as a civilization to capture energy is directly related to the space of possible inventions we can unlock. If we wanted to do a classical technology tree, we would find, at the joints, the ability to capture energy in different ways. Som inventions are much more likely, at least, in a world that has harnessed the energy of fossil fuels.

More likely, yes – but is it a strict limit? Could you imagine a world in which parts of our technology tree were unlocked without fossil fuels? What would a scenario look like where nuclear power was discovered before the fossil fuel engine? Perhaps it is not so much a question about the source of the energy as the total sum of energy available to us as a civilization.

The concept of Kardashev-classes is interesting here. It was launched by Nikolai Kardashev, Soviet astronomer, in 1964 and essentially proposed three types of civilizations:

  • Type 1. Harnesses all the energy that reaches the planet from its parent star. Some calculations has this at 4 orders of magnitude above where we are now. Some put this at around 1016 to 1017 watts.
  • Type 2. Harnesses all the energy of the parent star. We are now at 4 x 1026 watts.
  • Type 3. Harnesses the energy in its parent galaxy. 4×1037 watts)

The different types are interesting thought experiments for sure, but they also allow us to ask a question about invention and innovation. Are there some innovations that we can conceive of in a Kardashev type 1 civilization but that really requires a type 2 civilization to work? The most obvious example could be widespread, planetary artificial intelligence. In order to work persistently, evolve and manage complex systems, such a technology may need type 2-energy capacity.

There would be, then, a special kind of tragedy here – the ability to understand and design a technology without meaningfully being able to deploy it – because of the energy shortage. If so, that would be interesting to explore as a scenario.

The question here, then, would be: is there technology that requires Type 2+ energy capture to be viable large scale, but can be designed in a type 1 civilization?

Leave a Reply