Thursday 24 June 2010

Teleportation: Is it here now?

We've all heard the word. It apparently doesn't exist. Or does it?

Princeton University's Internet service called WordNet, defines the word teleportation as "a hypothetical mode of instantaneous transportation; matter is dematerialized at one place and recreated at another". While the word was first coined in 1931 by the American writer Charles Fort in an attempt to explain the disappearances and appearances of anomalies within his studies of odd phenomena related to the occult, supernatural and paranormal, it has become a mainstay of modern popular cultural through the science fiction of Star Trek. Who has not seen Captain Kirk or Captain Picard dematerialize on the transporter pad only to reappear elsewhere, ofttimes at quite some distance away?

Of course, today, at this moment, teleportation is merely a concept; our current technologies in no way permit us to do this. Nevertheless, this has not stopped people from wondering about it. Considering how physically moving from one place to another is a big part of everyday life, - heck, just look at rush hour traffic - it is not surprising how the idea of teleportation seems so appealing.

When Picard dematerializes here then rematerializes there, is he the same person? Supposedly - I almost wrote "technically" but at this point, anything we say is theoretical - the molecules of Picard are broken down and turned into energy. During the process, the make-up of those molecules are scanned by the machine and recorded. Then the rematerialization step involves rebuilding all the individual molecules which make up Picard so that in the end, "a" Picard physically exists, every molecule being the same.

However, I have thought long and hard about this and have concluded that metaphysically we may have an important question. The molecules which make up the new Picard are not the same as the original Picard. Is this the same person? Yes, all of the molecules have been scanned and their make-up, their blueprint have been recorded. Yes, using this blueprint, every single molecule has been reconstituted, rebuilt, replicated to be an exact duplicate. But there's the rub. The molecules of the duplicate are not the same as the original; is the duplicate the same as the original or is the duplicate nothing more than that, a duplicate? Is this the same Picard?

Like any computer system, a teleportation device would supposedly contain this blueprint of Picard. What would stop anybody from materializing multiple Picards? Each one would be a duplicate; each one would be a perfect imitation. - This idea, by the way, has been dealt with in Star Trek and other works of science fiction.

What's interesting in all this is that somehow, the essence of Picard, the man, the thing may exist apart from the physical representation of Picard. If the Picard which materializes is exactly the same; what is the difference? He acts the same way as before. He thinks the same way as before. This is Picard. Yes, the molecules are not the same but does this detail matter?

I'm not the same man I was yesterday

Today's medical science has pointed out that our bodies are constantly regenerating themselves. Our bodies replace old cells with new cells so that technically, at some point I am not the same person who existed a year ago, or 2 years ago. At some point, I would be a completely different person.

Unfortunately, my research on the Internet can't conclusively peg how long it takes to supposedly replace all of the cells in our bodies. I find many references to 7 years but I can't say this is backed up by scientific evidence. As a consequence, I will at least go with the idea that this is happening.

At the age of 57, I can say that I am not the same person I was at the age of 10. Physically, the cells which made up my body are not the same cells that make up my body now. However, anyone would say that I am still me; I haven't become somebody else, I am the same person.

If this is the case, then just what has happened? If William is still William, does that mean that there is a "William", a concept, an idea, an entity which exists independently of the cells which make up his body? Physically, the cells represent the tangible but the cells containing the memories, the experiences and the knowledge of William present William the person or the personality.

Is this the proof, the tangible proof that a combination of memories, experiences and knowledge is the sum total of William? If we could recreate this combination of memories, experience and knowledge in any body, we would in fact be recreating or replicating William?

My Report

As part of my job, I wrote a report at home. I wanted a printed copy but decided to do so at the office. I emailed myself a copy of the report, a Word document then once in the office, I opened the document and printed it. I went to the printer and picked up my hardcopy and while thumbing through the pages, a thought occurred to me.

My report existed independently of the paper it was printed on. Now I am certain you're going to say that this idea is just silly but if you will bear with me, I would like to return to teleportation and cell replacement.

My report is a thing, an entity which exists separately from the physical world. It can be transported electronically (teleported?); it can be copied (replicated) and it can be recreated as a physical thing. Now let's push this concept to its logical conclusion.

My Being

We can't do this with today's technology. Nevertheless, do I see a parallel between my report and me? A computer and a printer can take digital information and create a printed copy of my report. You can now hold the report, page through it, read it even smell the toner on the fresh paper. The digital information I have is complete enough to allow me or anybody else for that matter to recreate the report. What if I had all the digital information necessary to recreate my memories, my experiences and my knowledge? If some magic technology could create brain cells with an exact imprint of this digital information, would it not stand to reason that a brain made up of said cells would think and act like me?

If it is true that our cells are replaced in our body on a regular basis, we can conclude that I am not the same person at 57 that I was at the age of 10. If teleportation someday works, the molecules which come out at the end with the materialized person are not the same molecules which were dematerialized at the beginning. If I can write a report at home then print it at the office, I can still say it's the same report.


My report exists without paper. There is a thing which is separate from the paper, the physical representation of my report.

There is, in theory, a me, a personality which exists separate from the physical body. The me in question is the total of my memories, experiences and knowledge.

But... Now here is my but. I hesitate to use the word spirit to describe this me. I don't say my report has a spirit per se; I talk of the digital information necessary to recreate my report. Likewise, I can talk of the digital information which would be necessary to recreate the various cells of my body containing all of those memories, experiences and knowledge which make up my personality. I click on the print button in my computer and my report is printed on a printer. In theory, I click on a button and a computer sends my digital data to some replicator and a "me" is created: all of the cells, all of the personality. In that sense, I don't see a spirit; I just see digital information which is static and inactive.

Obviously, in this scenario, if I can hit the DEL key and delete the Word document stored on the hard drive of my computer, I could hit DEL and wipe out the digital data which makes up William. No more report; no more William.

Aside: I can scan my report and using OCR technology (Optical Character Recognition), I can recreate the digital information which equates to the report on the printed page. Teleportation involves the scanning of a physical person or thing and storing such information so the person or thing can be rematerialized.

Will I see teleportation in my lifetime? I doubt it. Nevertheless, it does raise some intriguing issues and "intriguing" can be fun to think about.


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