If you could know only one statistic about an alien civilization

by on March 11, 2010 at 7:00 am in Games | Permalink

Adam asks:

If you were offered a true statistic about an alien civilization, but only one, what would it be?

How about the real rate of return on capital?  The risk premium?  The percentage of the population which dies in war each year?  Those are what come to mind right away.  What else?  Ideally you might want a cognitive measure, but their performance on human IQ tests probably would not be useful information.  How about "what percentage of our knowledge of mathematics do they also have?"  Furthermore, I would not assume they "look like the aliens you see on TV" and would consider a biological statistic (which one?) which expressed what kind of life forms they would count as.

What would you choose?

1 CFG in IL March 11, 2010 at 7:21 am

How many steam engines they have?

Isn’t capital a socially constructed notion that could pass away (or never have been used at all) for reasons we cannot yet guess?

I would ask what statistic they think is most revealing about themselves.

2 dearieme March 11, 2010 at 7:26 am

“Does your mother know you’re out?”

3 Don Lloyd March 11, 2010 at 7:28 am

Do true individuals exist, capable of independent goals, thought and action?

Regards, Don

4 Craig March 11, 2010 at 7:31 am

I would want a measure of their technological abilities, which may be measured by how long it takes them to reach other planets in their solar system (Or, nearby stars?) If they are sufficiently advanced, we could be in real trouble. Of course, I don’t know how we would learn that statistic without revealing our location.

5 Jay March 11, 2010 at 7:44 am

How many planets does the civilisation occupy?

If the answer is 1, then their level of civilisation is somewhere between a stone age tribe and an advanced globalised society.

If the answer is more than 1 then we have a lot to learn from them.

If the answer is substantially more than 1 then we also have a lot to fear from them.

6 Martin March 11, 2010 at 7:46 am

Government Spending as a % of GDP might be interesting, too.
I would also like to see a breakdown of the government budget (provided one exists) by catergory. Not sure if this qualifies as a statistic, though.

7 Selfreferencing March 11, 2010 at 8:03 am

What are the major theological and moral tenets of their largest religion (if they have one)?

8 Travis March 11, 2010 at 8:07 am

How many of you die by the hands/actions of others (murder, manslaughter, war included).

First and only goal of the human race: to stay alive. We want to know how violent these buggers are.

9 londenio March 11, 2010 at 8:19 am

I would like to know the average answer of the question “How often in the last month have they felt envy?”

10 Jim March 11, 2010 at 8:23 am

Life expectancy in Earth years.
(Have they figured out how to turn off the aging gene yet?)

11 Jameson Burt March 11, 2010 at 8:34 am

What are their sources of energy generation by percent?

If mostly wood, they’re undeveloped.
If mostly wind, they could be just entering industry or very advanced.
If something unheard of, we get opportunity for ourselves.

12 pauloabx March 11, 2010 at 8:39 am

the price of their planetary bonds

13 Lewis March 11, 2010 at 8:58 am

What percentage reads MR on a daily basis?

14 DaveL March 11, 2010 at 9:19 am

Where is your civilization on the Kardashev Scale?*

Our civilization is at about .7 on this scale.

* Paraphrasing Wikipedia: The Kardashev scale is a method of measuring a civilization’s level of technological advancement, based on the amount of usable energy a civilization has at its disposal, and the degree of space colonization.

15 J. Daniel Wright March 11, 2010 at 9:20 am

Do you have Butterfingers yet? Because you’re going to love them.

16 George J. March 11, 2010 at 9:37 am

Average percentage of time of an individual spent communicating with others of the same species.

Also, I know there is an economics focus to this blog, but I find amazing the presumption that an *alien race* would also be capitalist.

17 AndyinNc March 11, 2010 at 9:44 am

Easy. Maximum speed.

18 @Philipnotphil March 11, 2010 at 9:57 am

Do you have comedy?

19 matt March 11, 2010 at 9:58 am

UFO accident statistics.

would aliens even call them UFO’s, though?

also, the sex ratio.

20 tyler w. March 11, 2010 at 9:59 am

Can you tell I’m smart? I’m using my one question to ask about government expenditures as they relate to GDP. On Earth that means I must be smart. Please tell me I’m smart.

21 Justin March 11, 2010 at 10:03 am

How much time do they spend educating themselves?

22 Garrett Schmitt March 11, 2010 at 10:13 am

Percentages, rates…I’d want to know the total population first.

23 Some Guy March 11, 2010 at 10:24 am

Information density vs. time

24 Chris March 11, 2010 at 10:34 am

What do they breathe?

25 KG March 11, 2010 at 10:41 am
26 Some Guy March 11, 2010 at 10:52 am

“Why bother? Any one set, or even several sets, of statistics are useless without context.”

Because not every statistic is equally useless, absent context. And because it’s fun to wonder.

27 JB March 11, 2010 at 11:56 am

What percentage of their total ice cream sales are from dippin’ dots? If it’s higher than ours, they are more advanced. If it’s lower, they are less advanced.

28 Chris March 11, 2010 at 12:30 pm

I fifth (sixth?) total energy production. The more energy you can produce, the more capabilities you have and it’s the one thing we can be sure is relevant to any advanced civilization.

Social indicators are highly unlikely to be even remotely relevant or useful.

29 David R March 11, 2010 at 1:09 pm

Their annual(ized) historical economic growth since the beginning of their civilization.

30 khc March 11, 2010 at 1:37 pm

You can tell the crowd this site gets.

“Can we be friends?”

31 Bobby Fish Paste March 11, 2010 at 1:52 pm

How long will it be before they get here?

32 rpl March 11, 2010 at 3:07 pm

How long have they existed as a “technologically advanced” species. Insert your own preferred definition of technologically advanced; I would use the invention of radio. The answer to this question gives us a second data point for the one of the two slipperiest terms in the Drake equation: the lifespan of technologically advanced species. As a bonus, that figure would give us a little information (compared to virtually none now) about the distribution of N in the Doomsday Argument.

I don’t think there’s much point to questions how many civilizations they’ve exterminated or the like. If they’re capable of traveling to our planet and they’re inclined to destroy us, then there is probably nothing we can do about it, so why worry about it? Narrow questions about science, economics, and what have you are also relatively uninteresting because, while they give you some inkling of what’s possible, they tell you nothing about how to get there from here, how far along the spectrum of possibility the answer lies, nor what the possibilities are in other fields. If you’re only going to get a tiny amount of information, you want it at least to be about a really big question.

33 Swedo March 11, 2010 at 3:39 pm

Home world position relative to earth.

34 xysmith March 11, 2010 at 4:47 pm

Would they like to buy this lovely diamond ring?

35 Chris March 11, 2010 at 5:32 pm

“Per capita energy consumption was my first thought, obviously shared by a lot of others.”

Total energy production will give you a good idea of the amount of resources they have access to and thereby what kind of technology, as well as civilization size and reach.

36 rp March 11, 2010 at 7:41 pm

% of population not content with government

37 k March 11, 2010 at 9:15 pm

Murder rate
number of wmd

38 Andy March 11, 2010 at 9:31 pm

megabytes of information processed per day by the average individual

39 1MaNLan March 11, 2010 at 10:27 pm

What are the unemployment statistics on their planet? And, are there any current positions that I might apply for?

40 Eric H March 11, 2010 at 10:59 pm

Gini coefficient over the amount time for which they have data.

41 Dave March 11, 2010 at 11:40 pm

I would go with VORP.

42 John March 12, 2010 at 12:55 am

The requirements of their metabolism, of course. Tells us a lot about how they would interact with us and our environment.

43 Billy March 12, 2010 at 1:13 am

Are you significant?

44 jk March 12, 2010 at 3:41 am

amount of inequality – they can give the formula they use to compute this measure

45 anonymous March 12, 2010 at 5:24 am

“position of their civilization in the cultural H-R diagram…, in which the total information capacity of a transmitting culture, measured in bits, is plotted against the light-crossing time in light-seconds of their total colonized space.”

You are assuming here that they will in fact be colonizing physical space. They may choose instead to colonize cyberspace (upload themselves or disappear into their own version of Second Life). More generally, they may put such a high premium on continuous low-latency intraspecies communication (Twitter on steroids) that all of them permanently remain within a fraction of a light-second from one another. Extrapolating current trends among humans strongly suggests that we will choose the latter course, rather than expansion via colonies on Mars and so forth.

Perhaps we could define some measure of “societal dispersion”: what is the theoretical maximum time to transmit a piece of information to substantially all of your collective sentience? It would have to be phrased carefully to exclude possible outliers (hermits or desert-island outcasts), and not to exclude hive-mind civilizations that don’t have clearly defined individual members. It would also have to be phrased carefully to exclude communications methods of limited practical applicability (eg, guards transmitting messages at high speed across the entire length of the Great Wall of China by flashing lanterns).

Primitive pre-telegraph civilizations would measure this in weeks or months; for us currently it is a fraction of a second. We face two wildly divergent choices for the future: expansionary colonizing interstellar civilizations would have high values measured in years or even many thousands of years; whereas for uploaded “super-Twitter” civilizations contained within a single computing cluster, it might be milliseconds.

Of course, the latter sort of civilization would likely have very little interest in interstellar communications subject to speed-of-light constraints: subjectively, it would feel like waiting a million years for your message-in-a-bottle to get a response. So we would be very unlikely to ever be able to query them about this or any other statistic, or even learn of their existence.

46 Mcsimilian March 12, 2010 at 7:00 am

Is there a chance, that a clash between our both cultures could happen and we could loose. could only be 0 or 1, due too different levels of advancement and agressiveness. We are only doomed, if both cultures are on the same level in both categories.

Technically it is not only a statistic about them.
And technically it is just one digit (Before publishing it on earth I would multiply the final result with 42, then some of us die with a smile at least)

47 Nick March 12, 2010 at 3:45 pm

Percent that are college educated.

48 Justin March 12, 2010 at 5:58 pm

The fastest speeds and farthest distances they’ve traveled.

49 victory March 13, 2010 at 10:40 am

I would want to know whether they believe in a Supreme Being and the % they think Hell is true.

50 GeeZeR March 13, 2010 at 3:46 pm

What about girls?

51 SkepMod March 15, 2010 at 6:06 pm

Lifetime energy consumption per capita.

This should help peg them on some type of evolutionary scale. The statistic roughly holds up for species on earth. Higher the number, the aliens either have long lives or are technologically advanced or both.

52 annemarie March 22, 2010 at 4:33 am


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