Last year, Chinese scientists successfully teleported photons 300 miles into space, renewing the conversation about teleportation in the future.
Usually, whenever a distinguished physicist is explaining to the press about their latest breakthrough in photon teleportation, you can feel them silently cry out, “that's great, but when do I get to skip traffic?”
If you are one of those frustrated futurist pining to spout science fiction cliches every time you step into a teleporter, then you’re in luck.
We’re going to break down the recent developments and research and discuss what we can expect from teleportation in the future.
Getting Entangled in Quantum Teleportation
The most promising avenue of research towards personal teleportation in the future is by using quantum mechanics.
Based on the discoveries of Niels Bohr and others, quantum teleportation relies on the curious behavior of the subatomic particles that make up an atom.
As far back as 1998, Caltech physicists teleported a photon from one sealed chamber to another a few feet away.
Since then, we’ve teleported photons hundreds of miles, faster than the speed of light, and there might theoretically be no limit on the distance a quantum teleporter can take a particle.
It all comes down to something called quantum entanglement. It is what we call the phenomenon where two particles are generated together and interact with each other in a way that the quantum state of one particle cannot be separated from the state of the other.
Essentially, you cannot change the quantum state of one without changing the quantum state of the other. Likewise, if you know the quantum state of an entangled particle, then you know the quantum state of the other.
And it doesn’t matter how far apart they are from each other, they could be on opposite sides of the universe and this is still true.
This instantaneous communication of information can be many times faster than the speed of light, the universal speed limit discovered by Einstein.
When seeing entanglement for the first time, Einstein famously called it “spooky action at a distance” to express his unease at this information transfer casually breaking the laws of physics as we know them.
But it has been demonstrated many times that quantum entanglement can relay information faster than the speed of light.
Using this entanglement is what makes a quantum teleporter possible and holds the door open to widespread teleportation in the future.
By taking the particle and using one half of an entangled pair to encode all information about that particle as a series of bits, wherever the other half of the entangled pair now has that same information, which could then be used to recreate the original particle.
How Personal Quantum Teleportation in the Future Would Work
It’s worth laying out what we mean when we say quantum teleportation. It is the complete conversion of every particle in your body into information, down to the atoms. This data is then transmitted to a receiver located wherever you intend to go.
That's where entanglement comes in. A transmitter will have a bunch of entangled particles, each being one half of an entangled pair, and the receiver has the other half of the entangled particles.
The transmitter can send the data about you faster than the speed of light to its paired receiver anywhere in the universe by tapping out your data onto the quantum states of its entangled particles.
The receiver will take the digitized person and use it as a blueprint to rebuild your body exactly as it was sent, particle by particle. As for your old body, well, the team at IBM who proved this method could work has some bad news for the old you.
For this process to work, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle mandates that by scanning every particle in your original body, your body will be disrupted, particle by particle.
Fortunately, the teleporter now has all the data about you and is transmitting it across the universe at light speed, but the body that walked into the teleporter will have been completely destroyed by the process.
Wait, Does That Mean Teleportation Kills You?
Welcome to the world of the Mind-Body Problem, a philosophical challenge unsolved since Plato and where entire schools of philosophy have built up around trying to figure out just who exactly stepped out of the teleporter.
And there’s more to it because there’s the data stored in the teleporter’s memory to consider. It can rightfully be classified as an actual human mind, so this opens up a whole world of moral and ethical challenges that we haven't had to actually answer before...
We're living through such a time now. For a century, philosophers and ethicists have debated the trolley problem as a thought experiment about the value of one life versus many lives, but there was never an actual trolley.
Now there is: the self-driving car—and programmers must program the answer to the trolley problem with the car’s decision making algorithms.
It goes without saying that this has actual, real-world consequences for somebody. Personal teleporters are going to ultimately force us to answer this question.
Of course, this all might just be academic because the physical challenge of personal teleportation is just as daunting as the metaphysical one.
The Logistics of Quantum Teleportation
Let’s just assume that your entire personality is a result of a unique configuration of neurons in your brain. All your memories are made through these connections and they control everything from playing sports to who you love.
Wherever you fall on the mind-body spectrum, making an exact copy of the brain is paramount and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
The transmitter would need to record all of the data that represents this intricate web of connections, because if not, there's no telling who you'll be once you’re rebuilt.
Which begs the question: how much data is required to rebuild the body coming out exactly the way it was when it went in?
In order to recreate a person exactly, the quantum scanner on the transmitter would have to record the precise position, movement, orientation, and chemical bond of every atom in their body.
Fortunately, a group of graduate students in the Physics department at the University of Leicester in United Kingdom sat down and did the math for us.
Calculating a human cell at about 1010 bits of data, they arrived at 2.6 x 1042 bits of data in the human body, or 26 followed by 42 zeros. With numbers this large we might actually have to consider whether processing this much information might actually create a singularity.
So, it looks like who it is coming out the other side of the teleporter will have to remain a thought experiment for a while longer at least.
What About Quantum Computers?
This much data is obviously beyond the capacity of classical computers to process, much less the human mind.
But could a quantum computer process this much data? That is unknowable at this point since quantum computers are still in their infancy, but quantum computing holds out the promise of solving exactly these kinds of intractable problems.
According to Dr. David Whitehouse, the online science editor for BBC News, “[u]sing light and quantum mechanics offers the prospect of computers trillions of times more powerful than we have today.”
Trying to imagine what that kind of computing power actually means in the real world is impossible, but it is conceivable that a quantum computer with that much power could bridge this gap between the limits of modern computing and the personal teleporter.
If it can be done, then the prospect of traveling faster than the speed of light, at least to places where there is a receiver, is also possible.
Whether it will be enough remains to be seen. A challenge of quantum teleportation does seem to call for a quantum solution though, so quantum computers might be just what we need to develop personal teleportation in the future.