As a thought experiment, consider what might happen when we first discover other intelligent life in the universe.
Some people think it will trigger widespread panic. Others believe it will usher in a new age of world peace as we realize our place in the universe (haha). Personally, I think it will turn into a competition. After the initial wave of excitement, we’ll inevitably ask: who’s better — them or us?
This is a tough question to answer! It’s unlikely that an alien civilization will look anything like our own, making most forms of direct comparison difficult. We have no guarantee that they will understand our art, language, or even communication as we know it. They might think our hands are weird, while we’re repulsed by their vibrating tentacles and affinity for country music produced after 2018. In fact, the only thing we’ll definitely have in common is that we both exist in the same universe.
We’ll need to be creative if we want to answer this in a satisfactory way. After all, we need to beat them if we’re going to prove who’s boss.
The Alien Olympics
First, why this is worth doing? What benefit do we get from this type of comparison?
Friendly competition is an outlet for different cultures to find common ground. Consider the Olympics, which allow people from all over the world to compete on equal footing. The events for an Alien Olympics would need to be tweaked, but the idea of competition as a cohesive force has worked well for our own species and could be extended.
The events also give us a benchmark with which to measure our own progress. For something to qualify as an Alien Olympics event, it must be a core function of civilization. Events in the Alien Olympics are those which all civilizations share in common, regardless of the infinite possibilities that exist in biochemistry or physical appearance. This list is not large, but what remains is almost certainly a benchmark that is worth pursuing.
So, how might we compare humanity's achievements to those of other civilizations?
The way to measure success
I can think of two events that would be suitable for the inaugural Alien Olympics:
What we’re able to know (math)
What we’re able to do (energy manipulation)
These two events are the most fundamental metrics with which to judge a civilization. In fact, it’s already how we measure the success of past cultures.
We write history books about famous inventors and mathematicians. Leaps in knowledge are already considered major milestones in human history. We remember that the Mayans described the concept of zero, Pythagoreus’ contributions to geometry, and Newton and Leibniz’s joint discovery of calculus.
These achievements are so important because they are a core function of intelligent life. Discovering the underlying principles that make up the universe is a goal of civilization, human and alien alike.
It’s not just about what we know, but also about what we do. Millions of people flock to view the manmade wonders of the world. The Great Pyramids of Giza, The Colosseum, the Taj Mahal — these places are special because they represent our ability to manipulate the world around us.
Even more impressive is just how useless these monuments are by traditional economic standards. The largest achievements in our history include gigantic graves made of stone, sports stadiums, and ornate temples for worship. It’s not our trains and highways that make us special — it’s our willingness to spend huge amounts of resources to build things just because we can.
These categories are only useful if they can be applied to any civilization. How do we compare the alien calculus to the one we’ve discovered? What makes our own pyramids better or worse than their alien counterparts? We need definite metrics for success.
Conducting the challenge
Each category will require slightly different rules, which I’ll explain:
What we’re able to know
Math is great because it’s independently verifiable. Although Leibniz and Newton both invented calculus, they used different notations to describe the same underlying concept. This is why math is the ultimate equalizer.
Each participating civilization in the Alien Olympics must submit ten unsolved math problems. These problems must be provably solvable; you can’t, for example, request an algorithm to solve the halting problem. It’s a kind of universal Putnam Competition that tests for raw intelligence.
The civilizations are then given 1,000 years to solve as many problems as possible. At the end of the competition period, the civilization with the most valid solutions is declared the winner until the next competition.
What we’re able to do
One benchmark of a civilization’s progress is its ability to manipulate energy. The Kardashev scale is a useful way to measure this. Taken from Wikipedia:
The scale has three designated categories.
A Type II civilization, also called a stellar civilization—can use and control energy at the scale of its planetary system.
A Type III civilization, also called a galactic civilization—can control energy at the scale of its entire host galaxy.
Civilizations are placed within “weight classes” according to their ranking within the Kardahsev scale. Each class is then assigned a challenge, like "manufacture a Dyson sphere that converts 100% of a supernovae’s energy into another form” or “create a stable neutron star given a fixed volume and density of space gas”.
The challenges here would need to be defined further, but you get the point: do something hard that requires a huge amount of engineering resources.
The nice thing about the Alien Olympics is that we don’t need to wait to discover other life to start training. Because of how the events are defined, we can be fairly certain that they will be useful even if we never end up formally competing. Advancing civilizational knowledge and engineering ability is a core function of any intelligent life — beating other life forms with our mad skills is just the icing on top.