We keep wondering why aliens have not made contact with us. And we keep wondering why we have not been able to find intelligent life in the universe. But do we even know what we are looking for?
Imagine an anthill somewhere near the building you live in. In it, are ants who wonder if there is life outside the anthill. Their explorers venture out into the grass that extends in all directions and come back with nothing. Their astronomers (antronomers?) train their telescopes outwards and report that they can see no anthills. Largely, the ant community comes to the conclusion that they are alone in the universe.
Occasionally they see immense objects wandering about in the vicinity of their world. These are too large for them to make sense of and mostly stay clear of the anthill. The ants sometimes daringly climb up these objects to look for other ants but they find nothing and find themselves mysteriously brushed off by unseen forces. The view that they are all alone in the universe takes root among the ants.
Now return to being yourself. If human beings knew that cosmic loneliness of the aforementioned sort was haunting ants, how much would we care? Would we care enough to communicate the fact of our existence to them? What, if anything, could we tell them about ourselves? What, if anything, would an ant understand of the scale on which humanity operates? What would economics mean to ants? Or religion, or literature, or even things as basic as reading glasses?
An ant’s capacity for understanding is not limited by absence of information. It is limited by the ant’s inability to process information even when it is abundantly available to it. The ant is not looking for life so much as it is looking for ants.
The human quest for extraterrestrial intelligence is marred by this very same limitation. We are looking for something, but we do not really know what we are looking for. We have some ideas regarding what it will look like when we do find it, but for the most part, these ideas are pictures of us. We are staring out into the cosmos with unblinking eyes, looking for our own reflection.
In 1964, Russian astrophysicist Nicolai Kardashev came up with a way to categorise hypothetical space-faring civilisations. This system, known as the Kardashev Scale, classifies civilisations on the basis of their access to energy.
The Kardashev scale labels a civilisation as Type 1 when it becomes capable of harnessing all the energy of the planet it exists on. A Type 2 civilisation is one which is capable of using all the energy its sun produces. A Type 3 civilisation has access to the energy output of an entire galaxy. The gap between the human scale and the level on which ants operate may thus be compared to the difference between a Type 1 and a Type 3 civilisation on the Kardashev Scale.
And the sad part is, as a civilisation, humanity has not yet even reached Type 1 status. It will be some time before we can command all the energy that this planet has to offer. This includes harnessing Earth’s total geothermal output, building a lot more windmills, draining all fossil fuels, and — as you might imagine — stripping the planet of all its resources.
Five million years ago, we began becoming what we are today. We parted ways with the Chimpanzee and started on the path that led us to becoming Homo Sapiens. It took us this long to gain this much of an understanding of the universe. Imagine (because that is all we can do at this point) how long it will take us to become anything resembling a Type 1 civilisation. Some, like Michio Kaku, say we are roughly a century away from getting there. I have a feeling he is not factoring in the human impulse to destroy itself into his estimate. Time will tell, as it always does.
Imagine also, if you dare, how far from being a Type 3 civilisation we would be when we do become a Type 1 civilisation.
What an alien civilisation would have to be to be able to command the energy output of an entire galaxy is itself mind-boggling. Especially given the fact that we have not even completely explored the entirety of our solar system. Hell, even the dark side of our own moon remains rather mysterious to us.
We are sad little ants, roaming about on the grass, looking for ants.