Of the following, which superpower would you choose?
A) Time travel
C) Mind reading
If you picked B, this article is for you. Even if you didn’t, you may still find it mildly interesting.
Of the many people I’ve asked, most think that the ability to teleport would truly enhance their lives. After all, who wants to languish on a plane for 10 hours to kick off their vacation? It’s a grind many of us would gladly forego.
Imagine having the power to skip the flight and simply teleport to your destination. At least one or two friends, of course, would surely resent you for it. To soothe any bad feelings, you should at least bring them back a souvenir from your travels. Just smile, gush about the wonders you’ve seen, and dump the pile of seashells in their hands. If things go south, teleport immediately. Later, you can tell your friends you can’t quite control your superpower yet.
Jealous friends notwithstanding, teleportation isn’t merely confined to the realm of fantasy. It was reality 20 years ago.
In 1997, scientists harnessed a phenomenon called quantum entanglement to successfully teleport one photon across the lab. Of course, something visible to the naked eye – much less a human –would be much harder to teleport than a single particle. Rebuilding a human with all of his constituent atoms is a staggering endeavor. With the right technology, however, it is possible.
“A fanciful approach to teleportation,” writes astrophysicist Brian Greene, “involves having two chambers of quantum entangled particles at distant locations, and a means of carrying out appropriate joint measurements of the particles making up the object to be teleported with the particles in one of the chambers. The results of these measurements would then provide the necessary information to manipulate the particles in the second chamber to replicate the object, and complete the teleportation.”
Simply stated, we scan the original object and reassemble it from atoms at a new location. Imagine stepping into one of these devices. Give the thumbs up and your body gets scanned and reconstituted on, say, a lunar colony. But what happens to the “you” back on Earth?
“Imagine a voice coming over the intercom to congratulate you for arriving safely at your destination,” writes author and neuroscientist Sam Harris. “In a few moments, you are told, your Earth body will be smashed to atoms. How would this be any different from simply being killed?”
I’m not sure anyone would sign up for that. And yet the problem vanishes, Harris notes, when the Earth body is dissolved before the copy is reassembled. In this case, your atomic copy arrives on the moon with a final memory of giving the “go” signal back on Earth. But is this new copy really you or merely a replica?
To think about this, Harris notes the difference between physical and psychological continuity. Your moon body is not physically continuous with your Earth body. Why? Brand new atoms, of course. But this is irrelevant, because our building blocks are all the same anyway.
“If two particles of the same species are in the same quantum state […],” notes Brian Green, “the laws of quantum mechanics ensure that they are perfectly indistinguishable, not just in practice but in principle.” With a sufficiently advanced teleportation machine, we could recreate an exact copy of any object. And if that object happened to be you, the copy would have all your memories – including the one of reading this article.
Psychological continuity, not physical continuity, Harris argues, is what we really care about. The new you feels just like the old you that was vaporized back on Earth. The copy is you, psychologically speaking, because your personal narrative remains intact.
I’ll admit, something still doesn’t feel right. It seems like your hapless Earth self has been murdered and now a clone is enjoying your body, memories, and banking information. The mind reels. But this feeling is merely a symptom of confusion regarding the reality of our experience.
Let’s start with our elementary particles. In each moment, we are shedding atoms left and right. Every year, most of them are discarded and replaced. Teleportation simply consolidates and accelerates this process.
What’s more, our notion of an “I” – a central observer that needs to survive teleportation – is misguided. We construct our identities – our “selves” – based on memory. We feel stable because we can remember the past.
But the past, as we remember it, isn’t the past at all. We can only access memories in the midst of a dynamic present. Teleportation would simply represent another moment of change.
In a way, even sans teleportation, we are being vaporized and reconstituted continuously. It happens too slowly to notice, but we are literally being reborn in perpetuity. When the day comes to discuss the ethics of teleportation, this will be part of the argument “for”.
Greene, Brian. The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality. New York: A.A. Knopf, 2004. Print.
Harris, Sam. Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion. Print.