Main Tech Level Article: http://www.orbitalvector.com/Tech%20Levels.htm
I did not want the main article on Tech Levels to get bogged down in too many details and potentially confuse new readers. However, there are still a number of things about the system that I think should be discussed and clarified a bit, for those interested in such things.
The idea of tech levels is borrowed from tabletop RPGs such as Traveller and GURPS. Its simply too convenient an abstract to pass by, especially when one is talking about future technology, which tends to build on itself the deeper into the future you go.
However, its still a very subjective system, as a number of assumptions and guesses have to be made about what breakthroughs, refinements, and technologies go where. Some technologies, especially near-term projects already being developed such as railguns and nuclear rockets, are easy to classify. Some which seem plausible but far-off, such as space colonies or particle beam weapons, can be more problematic.
However, some innovations discussed on the site may never be feasible and are primarily a nod to either how well-used they are in science fiction or how neat an idea they are. These include things such as high-end megastuctures and FTL drives. Where to place these innovations on the Tech Level scale is always the most difficult, as they’re based much more on speculative thought than on real science. That’s the reason why they’re usually in the higher end of the scale, but truthfully the breakthroughs that could lead to their development could come at any time, even tomorrow for all we know, if they come at all.
Seemingly impossible innovations have happened before. When I was a wide-eyed kid reading about science, things like teleportation or remotely detecting planets around other stars were considered complete hogwash by the oh-so-serious science authors of the day. Yet as of this writing quantum teleportation experiments are ongoing at a number of facilities around the globe, and over 200 exoplanets have been discovered thus far. Plus a number of things we never imagined to exist in the past, such as negative energy or a universal anti-gravity force, are now looking probable.
So dismissing any concept as patently impossible seems like a losing venture. It seems to me that most future technologies contemplated by scientists and authors aren’t impossible; they simply aren’t possible yet. They may not take the exact form we initially imagined, and indeed may not be possible for many thousands of years yet, but that doesn’t mean that they need to be completely dismissed as fairy tales.
Also, Tech levels are not meant to imply any particular kind of cultural or social development. Just because a society has Victorian-Era technology doesn’t mean that society will in any way resemble Victorian Europe. This is not to say certain scientific and technological developments won’t impact a society and shape it, but the end result of that process will not follow any predetermined path.
I am also aware that if the tech levels (x axis) were charted versus time (y axis), the graph would have a hyperbolic curve. The extreme lower and higher tech levels represent huge leaps of time, many thousands of years, while the middle tech levels, those closest to us in time, represent mere decades. Its always easier to distinguish the details of change to those things closest to us, and innovations that are very far off, in the past or future, we can only represent accurately by providing broad pictures of them.
It should finally be emphasized again that none of this is set in stone. The rate of future technological progress is interpreted differently by different people, and this is just one point of view.
Anyway, on to notes on the individual tech levels:
Tech Level 0
This is of course means no technology. Creatures can still be fully self-aware and intelligent and still not use tools. A number of examples are seen in science fiction.
Tech Levels 1 through 9
These represent different historical eras. They are included here to give the reader a reference to what tech levels may look like in the real world, in order to allow them to more easily envision what future tech levels may give rise to. This is also the reason the scale for future technology starts as high as it does, to keep the whole of technological development, past and future, in perspective.
Some ‘future’ technologies discussed occasionally fall into Tech Levels 8 or 9, representing innovations that were never fully followed through on (example: aerospike rockets), or sparsely-used devices that still seem futuristic to the average person (example: surface-effect watercraft.)
Tech Level 10
This represent the modern era, today. There will NEVER be any fixed upper date for this tech level, because that date keeps moving. Today will always be Tech level 10, tomorrow will always be Tech Level 11, ad infinitum. I currently mark this stage rather arbitrarily as beginning in 1991 with the close of the Cold War, but this may change as other real world demarcation events come along.
Things labeled as Tech Level 10 are devices that already exist or could be built with current off-the-shelf technology.
Tech Level 11
The first of the true future Tech Levels. This level is mostly things already in active development, devices you’ll read about in tech magazines as being on the cutting edge.
In science fiction terms, Tech Levels 11 through 15 represent most of the "hard science" innovations, things that are definitively considered possible, perhaps even inevitable, by our current understanding of the universe and its physical laws. This includes most of the expected end results of real research being conducted even as you read this. Articles on innovations in these tech levels attempt to be as scientifically accurate as my research allows.
Tech Level 12
Representing between 10 to 25 years from now, this tech level usually includes technologies that are either in the early stages of development in the real word or are in the design/blueprint stage. This is also the last Tech level where the world will be practically indistinguishable from what it is today. From here on the world is assumed to gradually but substantially change as more and more wonder tech is introduced, much in the same way the world of 30, 50, 100 years ago is substantially different from what it is today.
Tech Level 13
I use Tech Level 13 as the first of what I consider several "watershed" levels, where circumstances produce a number of major innovations that burst onto the scene all at once, creating substantial changes in society at large. (Tech Level 8, the era of the World Wars, was the last real-world watershed Tech Level.) Improved renewable energy technologies, substantially cheaper space flight, the first real commercial flowering of biotechnology, and quantum computers are only some of the innovations that, if current trends are any indication, may take hold about fifty years from now.
Tech Levels 14 and 15
Its here that the innovations that came onto the scene at Tech Level 13 are further refined and begin reaching their full potential. Improved spaceflight and energy technologies allow the worlds of the solar system to be opened up to full exploration and economic exploitation. Biotech and cybernetic technology substantially alters the quality of human life.
In science fiction stories, these are the Tech Levels that best represent pre-starflight societies (civilizations that have extensive space travel but have not fully started exploring their interstellar neighborhood) and cyberpunk worlds.
Tech Level 15 also represents the limits of what can be easily guessed about the future of real-world technology. From here, things start getting wilder and more speculative as we fully enter the realms of science fiction.
Tech Level 16
This level is another watershed level, but more of the scientific as opposed to the technological kind. The advances over the past five tech levels leads to vastly superior scientific instruments of a nature we can only guess at today. This in turn leads to a far greater understanding of the universe, space/time, and physical laws. This greater insight fuels many of the substantial innovations to come in later Levels.
As Tech Levels 11 through 15 are meant to be the "hard science" levels, Tech Levels 16 through 20 represent the more pure "science fiction" levels. While most of the technology here is still based solidly in known scientific principles, a few technologies tend toward the more fantastic end of the spectrum. Articles on innovations in these Tech Levels will attempt to anchor the ideas discussed with real science concepts, but will likely have more science fiction references than real science ones.
This is the realm of many popular science fiction tropes, particularly the prototypical space opera civilization. Because of this, the theoretical breakthroughs for innovations that are ubiquitous to the genre, such as gravity control, force fields, and FTL drives, come into play at Tech Level 16. Since its unknown that such technologies could ever be possible in reality, their starting points are arbitrary on this scale, and are placed at Level 16 so that their development coincides with other technologies typical of space operas and mainstream science fiction.
Other than its theoretical watersheds, Tech Level 16 is mostly filled with incremental refinements and improvements on technologies from the previous levels.
Tech Level 17 and 18
These are the levels of most space opera civilizations as depicted in popular science fiction. Advanced enough to have truly fantastic and wonder-inducing machines, but not advanced enough to eliminate all the problems and difficulties that allow for good drama and adventure.
The theoretical breakthroughs at Tech Level 16 come to fruition here, allowing interstellar travel and communication, gravity manipulation, terraforming, megastructures, and more all to become possible. True interstellar civilizations, or at least the potential for them, begin at these levels.
Tech Levels 19 and 20
The revolutions begun at Level 16 reach true maturity here, the technologies of the previous two tech levels becoming far more powerful and far-reaching. Megascale engineering becomes common place and begins a trend that follows through all Levels to come. Fantastical experiments into the nature of reality and existence sets the stage of the next great watershed leap in knowledge.
Tech Levels 21 through 24
Level 21 is used as another watershed Tech Level, pushing theoretical science into realms that inhabit the limits of what people today can easily imagine for the future. Levels 22 through 24 see this mega-technology enter the mainstream and become increasingly more refined and powerful.
Tech Levels 21 through 25 are called the "Ultra" technology levels, because they are to previous eras technologically what Superman is to us mere Earth-born mortals. Though still recognizable as machinery and technology, the innovations of these Levels would seem overwhelming and near-magical to those of us living in the early Twenty-First Century. Real world science is like a road map at these Levels; it can point you in the right direction but can’t provide any of the details of what you’ll see here.
Before, the fabric of space/time was poked and prodded to move ships or erect a barrier. Here, its bent, knotted, broken, and sculpted wholesale to produce a variety of miraculous effects. Dimensional interfaces, time manipulation, stellar-scale megastructures, intergalactic travel, true immortality, and more all become possible, if they prove possible at all.
In science fiction, these are the Tech Levels of the so-called "elder races," the usually inscrutable aliens with seemingly magical abilities that befuddle the heroes of sci-fi and often leave behind mysterious clues and powerful artifacts. This is also the realm of so-called "post-singularity" technologies, where technology changes society and humanity itself into something very alien from what we know today.
Tech Level 25
This represents the limits of understandable technology. Up to this point, certain machines and artifacts may seem otherworldly or immensely powerful or mind-bogglingly huge, but its still possible that someone from the early Twenty-First century could puzzle out their basic operating principles given enough time and resources. Once past this point, however, all bets are off.
Beyond Tech Level 25
These are the levels of god-like technologies, machines with powers we cannot easily comprehend that may be able to affect levels of the universe we may not even be aware of. Seemingly impossible feats, machines with a galaxy- or universe-wide scale may occupy these levels. The technology here may not even be recognizable as machines to us, only bizarre objects with frightening properties. This is the world of the incomprehensible. We can see an artifact’s effects, but we would have no hope of understanding how it does what it does.
This is the realm of aliens and civilizations with truly magical-seeming abilities, such as creating pocket universes, transuniversal manipulations, interdimensional civilizations, ubiquitous probability machines, and innate cosmic powers.
At times I may give innovations in this category a numerical value, if there are other artifacts like it mentioned in science fiction, for comparison’s sake. But even so, any numerical assignation of a Tech Level beyond 25 should be considered completely arbitrary, as by their very definition the workings of these technologies cannot be comprehended by us.