What About Me?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. If you are anything like me, you want to know about the unlimited form of teleportation, the kind that beams people from place to place. Let me temper your enthusiasm with two considerations, one philosophical and one technological.
First, extracting all the information from Captain Kirk’s body (or yours) requires knowing the physical state of every atom, which would require total disintegration. Each time Kirk steps into the transporter, then, he is committing suicide and then getting reborn at the other end. Second, the amount of information required to re-create him is staggering — about 4.5 x 1042 bits, by one estimate, determined recently as part of a highly entertaining graduate physics project at the University of Leicester.
Nobody knows how to collect and transmit that much information. And remember how the slightest disturbance ruins quantum entanglement? The process of reassembling your atoms would inherently scramble the information. At this point, it’s suicide at one end without rebirth at the other. Kirk might as well put on a red shirt first.
The teleportation situation becomes much less bleak if you bend the definition a bit, however. As many a video game player has noticed, the human brain has a remarkable ability to project itself outside the body and into other objects or virtual spaces. NASA is exploiting that ability with Human Exploration Telerobotics, a project that lets astronauts “inhabit” robots in locations that are fatal or inaccessible. A mechanical astronaut will soon be strolling outside the International Space Station. In the near future, you might be able to experience space exploration vicariously through a Mars rover or mechanical arms poking at a distant asteroid.
If that’s too much of a cheat for you, how about a DNA fax machine? Biotech guru J. Craig Venter proposes that if we find microbial life on Mars, we could sequence its genome locally, transmit the information and rebuild the organism here on Earth. In principle, Venter notes, the process could go the other way: It would be possible to send human DNA, along with an appropriate incubator, to distant planets and synthesize people at the other end. Then your clone could start setting up shop on a world orbiting Alpha Centauri B.
Cloning still doesn’t fulfill the full superpower fantasy of teleportation, I realize. No, what you ideally want is a complete mind-upload to your distant doppelganger, so that you/he/she can really be there. That would reduce the teleportation problem from “probably impossible” to “wildly difficult.” That still leaves the problem of the brain’s enormous information content. But if you accept that information is the only thing that defines your mind, the task seems feasible. No longer do you need to assemble atoms meticulously in the right locations; just the facts will do.
Note a fascinating common thread through all these possibilities. Whether you regard yourself as a pile of atoms, a DNA sequence, a series of sensory inputs or an elaborate computer file, in all of these interpretations you are nothing but a stack of data. According to the principle of unitarity, quantum information is never lost. Put them together, and those two statements lead to a staggering corollary: At the most fundamental level, the laws of physics say you are immortal.
How about that for a superpower?
[This article appeared in print as "The Ups and Downs of Teleportation"]