The Future Under the Magnifying Glass Part 2: Teleportation
by Mani Samani, Contributor
The word “teleportation” was coined in 1931 by American writer Charles Fort to describe the strange anomaly of disappearances and appearances, which he suggested may be connected. He joined the Greek prefix tele- (meaning “distant”) to the Latin verb portare(meaning “to carry”). The idea is that some individuals are born with a rare innate talent; the mental ability to create a wormhole and use it to transport themselves (and other people and objects) elsewhere on the planet, for example, to the flat spot atop the head of the Sphinx in Egypt for a picnic or to the interior of a bank vault to make a quick withdrawal. The topic is connecting this fanciful Sci-Fi premise to the literature that preceded it, and to the real physics which are relevant to teleportation.
Teleportation is nothing new in the literature of religion. The New Testament tells us in John 6:16-21 that, shortly after Jesus walked on the waters of the Sea of Galilee to join his disciples in a boat on storm-tossed waters, he teleported the lot of them, boat and all, to the safe harbor of Capernaum, at the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. Later, in Acts 8:38-40, we are told that Philip the Evangelist, just after converting an Ethiopian eunuch to Christianity, was teleported from his location on the Gaza-to-Jerusalem road to the town on Azotus, about 15 miles away. Not to be outdone, the Quran describes the phenomenon of Tay al-Ard (folding the Earth), in which you raise your feet and wait while the Earth turns under you until you reach your desired destination. In Islamic believe, holy Mohammad teleported from Mecca to Medina (two major cities in Saudi Arabia) in the blink of an eye
Within Science Fiction, teleportation forms a recognizable plot-device and theme. There are several popular movies about it, and the most famous science fiction film about teleportation is Jumper, which is based on the young adult novels of Steven Gould. In the film, the creation of the wormhole is fast and almost seamless, but it leaves behind a “jump scar” that can be reopened by others, if they act quickly, making for tricky interactions between the teleporting “jumpers” and their ancient “paladin” adversaries. Other examples of this subject can be found in TRON, Harry Potter, The Prestige, and Star Trek.
The most important part of this topic is the physics perspective, thus I talked to Dr. Erik Jensen, Professor and Department Chair of physics at UNBC:
Do you think is it possible to transfer objects via network?
In reality, no, because the amount of data required to transfer an object (even just a small little solid object) is huge. There is such tremendous data associated with it that it is simply inconceivable that amount of data transfer could ever happen; I mean that would be a kind of replication, and really there is no need to destroy the initial object. You can somehow read out that information and then take that information transfer and create a new object. The original object really would be like the duplicated one, because you cannot transport it itself. The idea would be you are transporting information about this state of the object to where ever you would like it to be. But even transfer of this information is an inconceivably huge number, because any solid object has such an incredibly huge number of particles in the atoms and because the atoms are so small and there are so many atoms in it, the amount of data to transfer is astronomical, it is not just an order of magnitude in it. Sometimes we got used to this idea that these days’ computers are so much faster than they were twenty years ago. This would be such an incredibly huge amount of more data to transfer, and that means many, many orders of magnitude that is simply inconceivable for any technology we can think of now.
Is there any research about this?
People are very interested in this idea of transmitting the state of a very simple physical system from one location to another. So the demonstrations of the principle has been done, because if you do it for an atom or even a very small collection of atoms, literally a few atoms, then you can conceivably do this process for a few atoms; and that is what they demonstrated in labs. But once you want to scale it up to any realistic sort of finite sized objects that we could manipulate or even see, the numbers are so astronomically huge that you cannot even imagine that we built something to transmit that required amount of information, so it really puts a damper on the idea of doing it for anything that we think of as a normal object.
Is there any difference between solid objects and fluid objects?
In principle no, because you need to represent the information required of at the deepest level of every individual atom, but this does not represent the problem. The problem is more than that just because there are so many atoms in any object, so the state of this is really an issue. In other words, there are more mechanical issues about how you would assemble atoms in that way one at a time; because atoms are so incredibly small and the time that it would take to sort or meaningfully assemble a macroscopic object out of atoms is an incredibly huge amount of time, and industrially, we do not make things that way because it would be too slow to just think about one atom at a time. When we manufacture things, we do it in such a way that we are manipulating very large chunks of atoms all at once, and we do not worry about what each individual chunk is doing.
There are a lot of difficulties from the computer science perspective. These limitations are described on quora.com by Frank Heile, a physicist and software engineer from Stanford University:
What are the computational limitations of scanning and sending a creature’s information?
To have a scanner that can record the position of every atom in the body to accuracy of the order of the size of a hydrogen atom would require position accuracy of about 10-10 meters. To get that accuracy over a distance of order 1 meter, this would require 30 decimal digits, which would be about 100 binary digits per atom. However, there would be a lot of redundancy in this data, so let’s be optimistic and assume you could compress this down to 1 bit per atom, so we still need approximately 1027 bits of data to just specify the positions of all the atoms in a human body. According to Wikipedia, the approximate data storage capacity of all the computers and storage devices in the world today is roughly 1 zettabyte = 1021 bytes = 1022 bits. Therefore, the data for the scan of one human would require at least 10,000 times the total storage of all the data stored on Earth right now.
The total traffic on the entire World Wide Web/Internet was about 31,000 petabytes per month in 2012. At that rate, it would take more than 3 million years to transmit the bits needed to specify the positions of all the atoms in the body.
Even if you can store and transmit this data and then store it again at the destination, you still have the problem of scanning the original body and constructing the final body. The scanning of the body will probably have to be destructive since you need to essentially take the body apart to get to the inner atoms of the body. So you had better be able to do the scanning in a very short period of time or the person will die during the scanning operation and you will end up reconstructing a dead person at the destination. Finally, you cannot take a long time to construct the body at the destination since the early parts you construct will die while you are finishing the construction of the later parts. It is safe to say that this method of teleportation is, for all practical purposes, impossible.
Above all, in terms of DNA and biological objects the problem of teleportation is more complicated. This question is answered by Sebastian Mackedenski, Dr. Chow H. Lee’s Biochemistry & Molecular Biology graduate student at UNBC:
Is it possible to scan and duplicate human bodies with respect to DNA?
Teleportation of biological material is inherently going to be complex. At the protein and DNA level, there is data in the form of atomic coordinates, oxidation state, and even the surrounding solvent that must be stringently maintained to retain proper function of nature’s tiniest machines. Consider that cancer is a result of genetic mutation, and even small changes in DNA can have disastrous health implications at the organismal level. Accuracy of every individual atom placement and even electron placement is therefore paramount to successful teleportation. Furthermore, biological macromolecules often cooperate together in multi-unit complexes or in connected pathways, necessitating nearly instantaneous materialization of all the “parts” in a pathway, let alone an entire living organism. Imagine putting together a person organ by organ, how long do you have to teleport the heart after you teleport the brain? Rapid Nano-scale 3D printing offers some hope for this beloved sci-fi tech, but practical restraints in speed, accuracy, and data bandwidth (every atom needs a set of coordinates) at the extremely long distances that would make teleportation useful, make it unlikely that we will see the canonical Star Trek “beam me up” style teleportation any time soon. However, perhaps the saving grace of the idea of teleporting biological molecules is that they inherently gain complexity by automatically folding from a linear sequence of DNA/RNA nucleotides or protein amino acids, into a regular 3D structure with precise atomic coordinates, a natural sort of information compression.
While the classic concept of teleporting an object across space involves making it seemingly disappear in one spot and re-appear in another, perhaps the definition needs some relaxing. DNA sequencers are machines that can decipher or “read” the genetic code of organisms. Entire chromosomes have been sequenced and can be read like a book as a series of A’s T’s C’s and G’s. On top of that, DNA synthesizers already exist, machines that can make custom DNA molecules of any sequence. So if the objective is to “beam” a DNA molecule of a certain sequence and size to another location, simply reading a genetic sample in one location and emailing the sequence to a synthesizer elsewhere will effectively produce the desired effect. Let’s take this one step further – biochemistry labs habitually engineer bacteria to make useful proteins such as insulin based on the gene DNA sequence. If a sequenced, emailed, and synthesized DNA molecule was inserted into engineered bacteria at a distant location, then we now have complex proteins showing up at the destination. This may be a far-cry from a complete human being, but it’s a start.
In summary, it is very safe to say that there is no method for teleportation of human bodies that could possibly work or be practical in our universe. Sorry, Star Trek fans…