Humanity has an obsession with things of the future – things being the operative word. We have an insatiable thirst for new gadgets, utensils and trinkets that promise to transform the way we live, and countless works of fiction have speculated on what nifty new technologies the future might offer.
Few such future-technologies are as terrifically ingrained in the public consciousness as those of teleportation, transporters and transmat beams of sci-fi renown, and even Harry Potter had those port-key whatsits. The idea of being able to instantly teleport from one place to another at the flick of a switch fascinates us. But is such a thing even possible? And if so, when can you expect to trade your Nissan Micra for a teleportation-belt?
The idea behind teleportation is simple: the desired matter (person or object) is scanned to obtain a meticulously detailed blueprint at the departure location, before being destroyed. The information gathered from the scanning process is then sent to the arrival destination (via a radio signal or something similar), where it is used to rebuild the object from scratch, producing a perfect copy of the object, effecting teleporting it to the new location.
Assuming the object can be broken down and rebuilt very quickly, over short distances such as those found on planet Earth (e.g. between two continents), the travel time should be practically non-existent, as information sent over the electromagnetic spectrum travels at the speed of light.
While teleporting a large object such as a suitcase or a human being might be a long way off, scientists have already demonstrated that it’s possible to teleport subatomic particles across space and time in this manner. Earlier this year, researchers from the University of Vienna managed to scan a photon in one place, and then recreate a perfect copy somewhere else. Effectively, they transported a photon of light instantaneously across a distance of 143km between two Canary Islands, using a technique known as quantum teleportation.
In simple terms, quantum teleportation exploits the phenomenon of quantum entanglement to get around the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. This principle outlines the impossibility of our making a perfectly detailed observation of subatomic particles such as photons without disturbing them, thereby making our pre-departure scan inaccurate. Quantum entanglement allows us to account for discrepancies caused by the scanning process by ensuring that the new photon at the destination is intrinsically linked to other photons present during the scanning process. Thus whatever disturbance occurs as a side effect of the scanning process will also be magically transmitted to the new photon.
Does all of this really matter when what we really want to do is teleport large objects on the scale of human beings? Surely it doesn’t matter if we get the odd detail about each subatomic particle wrong so long as we get the general details about hair colour and tone of voice right? Maybe not, as it’s possible that you don’t need to go into such detail when recreating large objects.
On paper, people, primates and even mammals are all basically the same. But, let’s not forget that the devil’s usually in the detail, even an identical genetic makeup can result in a totally different person when the likes of environmental factors are thrown into the mix. As such, it may well be that we need to go into the very fine detail an individual’s each and every atom to ensure that we get their mannerisms, memories and personality quirks just right.
So, kind of like faxing a document from Boston to New Delhi; the basic physics of transmitting information about an object instantaneously isn’t beyond our means. However, building the ‘fax machines’, a device that can perfectly record every detail about an object on one end, and another device that is equally proficient at recreating that individual on the other, is easier said than done.
We don’t even really know what every molecule in the body does yet, not to mention how we might resurrect the person instantaneously at their destination – human beings are traditionally grown in a uterus over a span of months.
Even if the ‘fax machine’ weren’t a problem, on average the human body contains fifty trillion cells, which would be a gargantuan amount of information to transmit. As Dr David Whitehouse explains: “to send that information down today’s fast data transfer systems would take a hundred million times longer than the present age of the Universe (which is about 15 thousand million years).”
So, the TelePad 5 will not be in stores any time soon. However, most argue that it’s only a matter of time before we work out the kinks. As Prof Michio Kaku puts it: “it’s no longer a question of physics – it’s an engineering problem.”
All things going well, however, there are also the metaphysical implications to consider. Namely, are you still you after you’ve died and been recreated somewhere new? Or, is this copy really a clone; a prefect replica with a new soul? As Star Trek’s Dr McCoy once grumbled: “What worries me … is whether I’m myself any more. I have a horrible suspicion that I’m a ghost. And that I’ve been one for maybe as long as twenty years.”
Lighten up, surely your ticket to the afterlife is small price to pay to pay for the ultimate first-class boarding pass!