Beam Me Up Scotty.

Teleportation, the ultimate form of transport?

Who hasn’t fantasized about being able to teleport? The idea of instant travel is thrilling, and sits in the same superclass of powers as flight or invisibility. And according to leading scientists, teleportation could be lifted into reality within a few decades.

Once thought impossible, researchers around the world have already made foundational steps towards teleportation. But the concept is surrounded by a thornbush of practical and philosophical issues. For example, can one even consider teleportation as a mode of transport, like land or air travel? And would the person stepping out of the teleporter be the same person who entered it?

Need for Speed.

Across cultures and history, humans have strived to go faster. Just like building taller and exploring further, speed has been a driver for civilisation and a reliable metric for progress.

But if the prime aim of transport is to move people faster, wouldn’t instant travel be the final goal? Our fixation with speed spurred huge innovations over the last century. The current land speed record stands at a blurry 763 mph, established in 1997 using a jet-propelled car. ‘Car’ here is a loose term. It looked like a long needle squashed between two enormous plane engines. It was also impractical for anything other than short bursts of high speed. Nevertheless, the automobile industry has exerted steady funding on new research, and production cars are safer and faster than ever before. A revealing example: new Honda Civics - as accessible a car as they come - have top speeds of up to 169 mph out of the garage. This is faster than almost all supercars from the 1970’s.

Future technologies.

Some companies are taking the first strides into the ultra high-speed travel of the future. HyperLoop One, a combined effort of Tesla and SpaceX, is one such company. Their idea works by creating a network of tubes across an area, and firing a passenger pod through it. Aided by much lower friction and air resistance, this transport should able to reach speeds of 700 mph. To put this into perspective - this would reduce a 4.5 hour train journey from New York to Boston to under an hour.

Teleportation is a benefit of emerging quantum research.

The idea of instant transportation has been a constant, lurking theme in media. And it’s not just the domain of spaceships and science fiction either - the idea of moving yourself from A to B without traversing the space inbetween appears in many forms. This includes apparating in Harry Potter, or ‘transmat’ in Doctor Who.

Teleportation is classified as a ‘Class I’ impossibility. According to world leading physicist Michio Kaku, this means ‘technologies that are impossible today, but that do not violate the known laws of physics’. He expands: “You know the expression 'Beam me up Scotty'? We used to laugh at it. We used to laugh when someone talked about teleportation, but we don't laugh anymore. Quantum teleportation already exists `{`and`}` I think within a decade we will teleport the first molecule.”

If teleportation could be achieved, it’d likely be done through a phenomenon called quantum entanglement. The concept is difficult and doesn’t relate well to common science. It describes a state where two different atoms in space are linked and can respond to each other, even if separated by a large distance. By organising a number of such entangled particles, information can be transmitted instantly from one particle to another.

Since the discovery of quantum entanglement, scientists have completed experiments over longer and longer distances. But a breakthrough was made this summer when Chinese scientists confirmed they had beamed a photon of light into space, where it was received by their target satellite. While there are still decades before teleporting larger and more complex objects is possible, modern quantum theory has at least pointed us in the right direction.

Is a fear of teleportation justified?

It’s natural and entirely precedented to fear new technology. A famous example involves the 1895 short film ‘Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station’, which showed a steam train rolling almost directly into the camera. The story goes that the audience at its initial screenings were so terrified by this perspective that they fled their seats. And this resistance isn’t the privilege of god-fearing Victorians - it’s just as stiff in the digital age. Over half of 8,000 people in a poll conducted by UBS this month said they would not fly on a pilotless plane. This is despite the fact that pilot error causes 80% of accidents, according to information from Boeing. It’s fair to say that humans shouldn’t be relied on to make logical decisions.

But would fear of teleporting be irrational? One should mark a philosophical divide between bodily transport and teleportation. The former serves to propel an object - with you inside it - from A to B in a linear route. However, teleportation works in a far more daunting way - by dissolving your atomic structure at point A, and then reassembling it at point B. But would this also transfer your consciousness, and what would the experience of departure be like? These questions explore the overlap between science and philosophy - but may be fundamentally unknowable.

Consider this chilling final thought - if you were to die in the teleportation process, and a living replica of your body and mind and memory would spawn at the other end, nobody would ever know. Hundreds of test volunteers would testify to a positive result, leaving an equal amount of forgotten dead behind them. Faster cars and disruptive technologies like the Hyperloop carry their own set of risks. However, these are trivial when compared to the immense risks of teleportation. Whether humans judge the ends to be worth the danger is a matter for tomorrow.

The implications are far-reaching.

It is our nature to want to go faster, and science is peeling away at technologies which once lived only in our imaginations. While teleporting would represent the telos of transportation, and is now declared possible, it will be fraught by profound issues. Perhaps human teleportation, if ever perfected, will be heavily sanctioned à la cloning. Namely, something that could be done, but whose ethical consequences would be too dangerous for our civilisation to attempt on humans.

Authors: Christian Geiss and Neelesh Vasistha