Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Teleportation: Is it a thing?

Science has two purposes, a noble one and a selfish one. The former involves discovery to enhance our understanding of the natural world. We conduct chemical experiments to teach us about how plants turn sunlight into food and how DNA modifies itself over time allowing one species to evolve into another.  The selfish purpose that science serves is to give us cool things. Science is what allows us to take planes across countries and carry computers in our pockets. Some people differentiate this role of science by calling it “engineering” or “technology,” but it is all semantics. Engineers are just scientists that know how to make money.

One of the major areas of interest for these selfish types of scientists is transportation. How can we move people and objects between point A and point B as quickly and as economically as possible. The holy grail of this branch of research is the idea of teleportation: moving an object between two places without having to travel the space between. Imagine the extra sleep you could get if you could teleport to work or school every morning. Imagine how smog-free our cities would be if no one needed a car.

That’s a lot of imagining, but is teleportation a thing that is realistically possible? Well, actually we've been doing it for a while... And by "we" I means scientists with massive budgets. It’s a new and growing field of study but since 1993 scientists have known that on some level you can arrive without travelling.

Right now the best we can do is “quantum teleportation” involving photons and laser beams. The way it works is through something called quantum entanglement. See, when two particles become “entangled” they share information in a way that seems impossible. They move in perfect sync with each other even if they are miles apart. Poke one particle and the other jumps. Scientists have shown that they are increasingly able to entangle particles in this way at will and that allows them to transmit information about particles over great distances and even replicate an original piece of matter far from where it originated. In essence, they can teleport it.

There is a catch, though. In order to get the information you need to generate the new particle in the desired location, the original particle needs to be destroyed. It’s not even a philosophical problem involving the merits of cloning… You actually can’t know enough out the original to beam its essence across space without annihilating it. What that means is, unless we figure out a new approach for human teleportation, each trip will amount to suicide and reconstruction. The clone would have all your same memories, emotions, and thoughts but that isn’t exactly in the spirit of things. Also, recreating the particles even a millimeter out of place would lead to severe mental and physical damage... A pretty risky proposition to avoid traffic for.

Quantum teleportation will ultimately be more useful in helping us build the insanely fast quantum computers we learned about in our discussion of Moore’s Law a while back. Instantaneously moving information between two place could lead to a whole new internet, free from privacy concerns since the very act of trying to listen in on communication between two entangled particles breaks the connection between them.

So where does that leave us in terms of human teleportation? Well, one theorist has come up with an interesting idea that you might be familiar with from a certain James Cameron movie. Biotech expert J. Craig Venter has proposed the idea of scanning DNA and sending the information across space to be recreated elsewhere. That means that if humans build a base orbiting a distant star, we could send our DNA up to it and have clones get to work running the place. From there, we just need to focus on scanning and replicating the information contained in our brains and projecting that into the clones, making them sort of like our, dare I say, avatars.  As Discover Magazine put it, “That would reduce the teleportation problem from “probably impossible” to “wildly difficult.””

So, in the end, science may be a ways away from beaming us to our offices, but the work being done could lead to some amazing new technology. You may not get to be Captain Kirk in your lifetime, but you might at least get a crazy fast computer as a consolation prize.