Will human teleportation ever be a reality?
[July 26, 2021: Sherryn Groch and Liam Mannix]
Let’s start with the real shortcut. Teleportation, at least the Star Trek-style that helped popularise the idea, means beaming matter from one point to another by breaking it down into tiny, transmittable form (those glimmers of light you see on screen) and then reconstructing it again, with hairstyle still intact, at the other end. This was actually brought into the original 1960s TV series to keep its budget down (even simulated starship landings are pricey).
But if teleportation was to ever work, scientists say it wouldn’t actually be able to move matter. The stuff we are made of does not pass easily through walls, and the energy required to break apart the powerful forces binding our atoms at a smaller, subatomic level would be astronomical, way over budget.
As theoretical physicist and futurist Michio Kaku explains “transporting actual atoms is too dangerous”. Instead, he says we could send all the information about someone, scanning down to that subatomic level, so they could be rebuilt in the exact same way at another location. Kaku thinks this human fax machine could work, in theory, using an MRI, which already scans living tissue – only this one would have to be powerful enough to generate images as precise as one atom per pixel.
Buchler then imagines a reconstruction station like a 3D printer “with big bottles of every necessary chemical element that puts you together piece by piece”.
“But this is where it gets a bit philosophical,” he warns.
“If you could measure every atom inside a brain, all their interactions, their precise [chemical state] and then reconstruct it somewhere else. If you did it perfectly, then, depending on your belief in souls or otherwise, in principle, in physics at least, it would be the same brain with the same thoughts and feelings and everything.”
Scientists have spent a surprisingly large amount of time considering whether Star Trek’s iconic “Transporter” teleportation tech could work in real life. (CREDIT: FAIR USE)
Most of the cells in your body are constantly replacing themselves over time, naturally. But, if this happened all in one go, would the reassembled “you” still be you or a clone? As Kaku himself muses: “If you ... zap [Captain Kirk] across the room, you’ve now seen Captain Kirk die, you’ve seen his atoms fall apart but here is this other Captain Kirk on the other side of the room, who has the same bad jokes, the same character [and memories] as the original ... so who is this imposter? It raises the question: are we nothing but information?”
And there’s a catch.
In 1993, a panel of scientists showed that perfect teleportation was technically possible but in order to work the original thing being copied would have to be destroyed. That’s because in order to measure the exact quantum state of any particle, how it is on its smallest scale, scientists have to disrupt it. To see where it is, you need to bounce a particle of light, known as a photon, off it, but doing so changes its momentum in an unpredictable way, losing all previous measurements about how fast it was travelling. “So you’ve disrupted its quantum state just by measuring it,” Buchler says.
Some imagine we may be able to take a less accurate scan of the body and still recreate someone faithfully, with all the mysterious emotions and chemistry that make them who they are. “Our brains might not be as sensitive to these [quantum mechanical processes], they might not factor in,” Buchler says. “No one knows because no one knows how consciousness works yet.”
Still, the amount of data required to read someone even down to just their atoms is difficult to comprehend. Humans are made up of 37.2 trillion cells, more than there are stars in the sky, and there are trillions more atoms within them. In 1995, physicist Lawrence Krauss calculated that if you stacked up the pile of hard drives needed to store the data of just one human being it would reach light years into space and take longer than the entire life of the universe so far (roughly 13 billion years) to upload anywhere. Imagine the dramatic tension then for the Enterprise crew. It would literally be faster to walk.
Krauss didn’t expect computer storage and transfer speeds to be up to the task until at least the 23rd century, and Buchler admits, even with today’s advances in computing, capturing all of a living organism in data may never be possible. “Even if someone offered me a $20 trillion grant to build a teleporter for an amoeba, I wouldn’t know where to start,” he says.
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