Reality Check: Teleportation: Going Nowhere Fast


Howstuffworks “How Teleportation Will Work”

I’m a big fan of anything that reduces travel time and of “super-high-tech” in general. But teleportation, as it’s popularly portrayed, is a very silly concept. And the popularization of the modern scientific experiements in the quantum realm has taken on proportions of mass delusion. It’s time for a reality check.

The linked article is perfect example. The author glosses over the key problem with teleportation experiments thus far (and even theoretical constructs). You can’t use this phenomenon to send useful information. Scientists can show that two or more entangled particles remain entangled and seem to “send” information instantaneously about their state. But when the remote locations eagerly discover the spin of their particle, that does little good, because we can’t control the source particle’s state without destoying the entanglement. In other words, we can’t use this device to send even a one-bit telegram. And that’s not changing anytime soon.

But assuming that problem can be solved eventually, the article glosses over the idea that copying the roughly 10^28 (his estimate) atoms in a human body would make a perfect copy. After scanning, you most importantly have to re-assemble those atoms into the original configuration. If we can do that reliably and quickly, we have much more important technology than a teleporter (see below). Moreover, we are each more than a collection of atoms. There is a dynamic electro-chemical flow throughout our bodies that must be captured and recreated, or else the teleported copy is quite literally a corpse. So it’s more like 10^28 atoms and who knows how many buzzing electrons in four dimensions, not three, plus field effects, and perhaps other unknown processes floating about. Good luck.

Even assuming we solve that problem and make a living human copy at the other end, it’s still, after all, a copy. We haven’t done anything to transfer your consciousness (not to mention your soul, if you believe in it). Now, the copy may look like you. If we solve the electrical problem above, it might even think it’s you. But if you two ever met, you’d be left to duke it out for the property rights and who gets the wife. Plus, consider me cowardly, but I have no intention of destroying my original body simply to go traveling. The only possible way I can imagine using such a device is to esacpe an exploding building or planet, where I’d likely die anyway. Would you allow your original body to be destroyed just because your perfect copy says he or she is really you? Without witnessing myself take the travel, I’d say no.

But there’s an even more fundamental flaw in the popular delusion of future teleportation: if we have the ability to send instantaneous messages over great distances and can rapidly arrange that many atoms at once, then why would we ever want to go anywhere?

I mean, that same technology, plus some clever software, is more than good enough to build the best possible holodeck we can imagine. Why not just send holographic “cameras” to remote destinations and beam the scene back to our living rooms using our nice instant communication? That would undoubtedly seem as real to us as being there. Plus, if we wanted, we could still send some atomic body-arrangers to the remote site to create a walking avatar of ourselves–not a distinct living person, but simply a virtual reflection of us, our actions, in real-time.

To the extent we allow the remote environment to affect that avatar and us, we are at some potential risk. But if we limit our exposure to the normal sensorium and, for example, prevent bullets and rock slides from affecting our source bodies, that’s a hell of a lot safer than teleporting there. But, by any reasonable measurement, it’s just as good as being there. I imagine some combination of sensor/avatar we can send in a very small package. Perhaps we can teleport that (or at least mail it or rent one on site) and let it represent us and send the scene back to us.

That’s what teleportation will look like, IMO. Not beaming us down to the planet like in Star Trek, but sending our virtual selves out to explore at minimal risk and much less cost than dying every time we step on the pad. One would think that even Captain Kirk would see the benefits of sending a virtual Kirk down to the dangerous planet surface instead of himself.

  1. #1 by Ted on October 11, 2006 - 4:23 am

    One correction: while quantum entanglement can’t be used to transmit information faster than light, it can, in conjunction with a conventional signal, be used to reconstruct (or transmit) the complete quantum state of a particle. It thus offers a solution to the problem of the uncertainty principle preventing you from getting complete information about a particle. So, theoretically, quantum entanglement makes slower-than-light teleportation a possibility. See the explanation here.

  2. #2 by Alex on October 2, 2007 - 10:35 pm

    I have always thought teleporting and timetravel were imposible. I pretty much think they are one in the same in a way. Everything is relative to the position you are in. If i am looking at a star 100 light years away, that has a planet and life orbiting it. That life travels towards us at a faster speed then light. When it gets to us, to us, it will look like they have teleported. But that space ship may have traveled for 50yrs at 2x the speed of light. So really there is no time travel or teleporting. But looking from earth, this space ship isn’t even built yet.

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