6 Realities of Teleportation Star Trek Didn't Warn Us About
With most technologies, we can only guess what they will look like 1,000 years from now. We don't really even know what the "ultimate" video game or cellphone would even look like. We're waiting for the technology to show us. But everybody knows what the end point of transportation technology is: instantly being able to go anywhere, at any time. Just like Star Trek's transporters, where you can send a person from Point A to Point B just like sending an email.
So how far away are we from that? Well, it turns out that there are a few complications ...
You're Carrying Trillions of Life Forms That Also Have to Be Transported
Of all the different types of teleportation that have been thought up in science fiction, they basically all involve disintegrating a human body, shooting it to another location as some kind of data signal and reintegrating it on the other side.
So that would imply that The Fly was onto something when it warned against stepping into a teleporter while something else is in there with you. Jeff Goldblum wound up in the pod with a single fly, but that was enough to confuse the machine, because it was only expecting Goldblum. Having to deal with two life forms instead of one, the system combined them, creating the horrifying human/fly monster.
Life finds a way.
But The Fly was playing it pretty conservative. If Goldblum tried out his machine in the real world, he would find his transporter trying to separate him not just from the fly, but from around 90 trillion other organisms. That's right, trillion. We don't even know how much that is.
These little guys have some prime real estate on your eyebrows.
That's because no matter how often you shower, your body is host to a ridiculous number of foreign organisms, from fungus that lives on your toes to viruses that live dormant in your system to mites that live on your eyelashes to the 300-cell-thick coat of bacteria on your teeth. And if you're thinking that all you need to do is develop some kind of better decontamination procedure, think again -- a lot of those microorganisms are your friends. You have bacteria in your gut that helps digest your meals. If you're a lady, your vagina is packed with little elves called vaginal flora that help protect you against yeast infections and other ladyborne diseases. All of that shit needs to make the teleporter trip with you, if you don't want to be extremely sick when you come out the other end.
Somehow, we expected vaginal flora to look more ... Smurfy.
We don't think it's a bad thing that The Fly didn't address these issues -- God knows we don't want to watch a film in which Jeff Goldblum turns into a giant vaginal flora or tinia fungus. The point is, a real process for breaking down a human and reassembling it at another location is way more complicated than it looks. Which brings us to the next problem ...
The Computational Power Needed Is Mind-Boggling
If your transporter is going to break you down, beam you and reassemble you, then that means at the heart of the machine is a big computer that stores all that data, the exact arrangement of all of your molecules. So it's just like faxing someone across the country a picture of your naked ass, except that on this occasion you are faxing your actual ass.
"There has got to be a better way to perform a colonoscopy."
Of course, faxing (or emailing, or texting) a two-dimensional image is pretty simple. The data you're sending only needs to keep track of every pixel in the image and where it's located. Teleporting your actual body would work on basically the same principle, but with atoms instead of pixels. And that's where things start to bog down, because actual material objects in reality exist in much higher "resolution" than your typical iPhone camera.
According to Wired, if we can assume that all the data we need to record the location of a single atom in your body, along with all the relevant information about that atom, can all fit on a single page of a document, then the amount of data required to catalog your entire body would be around 909 petabytes (one petabyte = one million gigabytes). Most new computers come with hard drives around 500 GB, so it'd take two million of your hard drives to store you. If you used every single gigabyte on every one of the 15 million iPads that Apple sold last year, you still wouldn't have enough capacity to store one dumb ass.
We really need to stop signing off on all that mescaline for the Image Department.
Or, think of it this way. Facebook has 800 million users, and all of their billions of photos, videos and status updates take up about 30 petabytes on their servers, which are housed in multiple massive million-square-foot data centers. The storage needed to transport one human would take all of Facebook's corporate resources ... 30 times over. You'd need something akin to the cooling system of a nuclear power plant to run it.
But on the plus side, inviting people to parties is way easier now.
But, hey, storage technology is always getting smaller, so maybe we're just a couple of decades away from that kind of storage being doable. But then we get down to the actual task of breaking you down, which becomes problematic when you consider ...
The Energy in Your Body Can Blow Up the World
It's all well and dandy if you can record a blueprint of where all your body parts go, but you have to actually get your body over there, too, unless you want to spend the rest of your life on a computer (although, let's face it, you were probably going to do that anyway).
That guy is totally copping a feel.
Your typical Star Trek-style transporter will zap your body into energy, teleport it to its location and then put it back together again, hopefully in the right order. That seems like the easy part after we fix the data storage problem, right? The problem is, when you convert a human body into energy, what pops out is the equivalent of 1,000 hydrogen bombs exploding at the same time.
To make sense of that, consider the nuclear bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. How much material inside that bomb do you think actually exploded? The answer is less than a gram. The amount of energy locked up inside solid matter is incomprehensibly enormous. If you converted the mass of an entire adult human directly into energy, your biggest problem would be how to avoid leveling an entire continent. Never mind teleportation -- if we found a way to convert matter into energy like that, we'd probably sooner use it to build a bomb that would blow up the solar system.
This is the human race. We weaponized dolphins. Doomsday devices are our specialty.
But let's continue to be optimistic. Let's say we find some way to safely harness and transport an apocalyptic amount of energy from one place to another. This task is far from finished, because you still have the problem of ...
You know how, when a storm blows over, your television gets a little fuzzy and your cellphone reception isn't quite as good? It turns out that beaming a signal from one place to another isn't an exact science. For your television, it means the sound might stutter on one out of every seven jokes on The Big Bang Theory. For teleportation, it might mean that you reach your destination with your arms growing out of your eye sockets.
Or your unitard gets left floating in subspace.
Geo-orbit.org describes many of the myriad problems we have in trying to get a good signal from one point to another. The aforementioned problem is known as "rain fade," or what happens when you try to fire a signal horizontally through a bunch of shitty weather. It doesn't work out so well.
But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Even if you're teleporting through open space, the sun might decide to kick your ass thanks to solar flares, which is what happens when the sun gets drunk and vomits a wave of energy through the solar system, disrupting radio signals and ruining the day of anyone who is unwittingly teleporting through it.
Aaaaaand there goes the Class of 2498.
Even in deep space, you're not safe from the weather, so trying to zap yourself from spaceship to spaceship isn't much safer than beaming across a planet. Outside of our sun's territory, the universe is teeming with cosmic rays, ancient high-energy radiation that, you guessed it, messes up your radio signals. Again, this is fine if you're just broadcasting Lady Gaga's latest single. It's not so good if you're literally broadcasting Lady Gaga.
She could end up half pop star, half pink sperm thingy.
So what if you manage to somehow get 100 percent of all your 909 petabytes of data and your whole armageddon-scale energy packet to your destination? What then?
Reassembly Costs a Ridiculous Amount of Energy
You made it! The last step is to take your disintegrated form and reassemble it into a healthy human being. The only thing you need to do now is find more energy than you can possibly imagine.
This might be enough juice to move a kneecap.
It turns out that converting matter into energy is the easy part, notwithstanding the whole "everyone might die horribly" thing. Going back to Einstein's theory, turning energy back into you requires you to input a much more stupid amount of power. If you don't understand why, think of the difference between the effort needed to build a skyscraper starting from raw materials (years of effort from hundreds of workers) versus the effort needed to bring one down (one jackass with a big enough bomb). Taking things apart is always infinitely easier.
The good news is, scientists already know how to turn energy directly into matter. They've been doing it in particle accelerators for quite some time. So forget reassembling a human being -- let's say we start more simply and try to reassemble a cheeseburger. According to a scientist very aptly named Kirk McDonald:
"Of about 22,000 beams fired into the Stanford accelerator, just over 100 pairs of particles materialized. With the development of increasingly powerful lasers, McDonald estimates that in another five or 10 years this may be an efficient way to make small amounts of antimatter. But the technique will never generate a cheeseburger. For example, even if all the sun's power could be focused on one spot, there still wouldn't be enough energy, says McDonald, to make even an ounce of matter."
Above: A particle accelerator, totally not fetching us a cheeseburger.
Well, OK, we just need more suns. Let's say you weigh around 200 pounds. If we say that the full force of the sun could create a full ounce of matter, with 16 ounces in a pound, that just means you would need the combined energy of 3,200 suns to reassemble a human being.
Our sun couldn't power the growth of your pubic hair for an entire year.
But we can't predict the future. Maybe future technologies will find a way to harness an infinite amount of energy from, we don't know, ghosts or something. Shit, maybe Einstein was wrong. Even if we find some way to cross these hurdles, there's one more problem to consider ...
What Comes Out Isn't You
We'll have to get a little philosophical here, but a movie analogy might help. In The Prestige, where Batman and Wolverine fought over a teleportation device invented by David Bowie, Wolverine wound up using it to perform magic tricks. But really, he was committing suicide every time and just creating a clone of himself, because magic is that important. Our transporter is going to do the same.
If someone has to die for our entertainment, we want it to be a magician.
Think of the fax machine analogy we used earlier. Our teleportation device is a fax machine that spits out a three-dimensional "document." But it is still a copy (or a facsimile -- that's what "fax" is short for, after all) of the original.
The original got destroyed.
So the question becomes, is what steps out the other end you, or just an exact copy of a now-dead you? How do you transport human consciousness from one point to another, and how do you know you're not just stepping into a murder machine so that some other jerk with your DNA and memories can take over your life? It's a difficult question to answer, because science doesn't really know what consciousness is yet.
"Alright, we've conclusively determined it isn't a Jell-O."
Some scientists think it will be possible someday to transfer your mind from one place to another, but even they admit that "consciousness" is a nebulous and ill-defined experience. If you're the religious type or just otherwise believe in the soul, at what stage is the soul getting transported? Is your ghost screaming through space along the beam of your disintegrated body? If you don't believe in the soul, then how are we keeping intact the chain of consciousness that links the person you are when you go to bed tonight with the person you will be when you wake up tomorrow? As common knowledge will tell you, when the brain stops, consciousness ends. So unless you find a way to keep that part of you on life support while you step into a machine that melts your brain into a ribbon of energy, then you're dead the moment you hit the switch.
If you say that it doesn't really matter, that this is all philosophical navel-gazing that can never have an answer ("Where IS human consciousness, anyway, man?" *bong noises*), then ask yourself what happens if they simply provide the machine with enough raw material to spit two of you out the other end (you know, like in that Star Trek: TNG episode with two Rikers). Or, what if the reassembly end of the transporter grabs the wrong instructions out of the database, like it accidentally grabs the blueprints of some other dude with a similar name, and accidentally puts you together as him (complete with his personality, his memories, etc.)? Or, what if a few brain cells get misplaced and suddenly you came out the other end an intolerable asshole?
To be honest, none of those other possibilities are as terrifying as the thought of two Rikers.
All we're saying is that the very first person who ever steps into one of these machines had better have some serious balls.
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