Teleportation: Will Quantum Physics Make Star Trek Tech a Success?
Most of us have seen the science fiction series Star Trek and are familiar with their concept of teleportation, in which characters are ‘beamed’ off the ship to another spacecraft or to the surface of a planet.
While Star Trek is just a TV show, some of the concepts presented may not be science fiction after all. Some of the advanced technologies imagined for the series have actually been implemented, while others like ‘warp drive’ are currently under development.
Could teleportation be next?
Teleportation: Science Fiction or Science Fact?
As normally defined, teleportation is a process where a physical object is de-materialized, converted to energy, transported across a distance and re-materialized in a different place. It blends the concepts of telecommunications and transportation into a cohesive whole.
While the idea may seem far-fetched, researchers around the world have been performing teleportation experiments for more than two decades. In 1993, an international group of six scientists published an article in the peer-reviewed journal Physical Review Letters outlining a plan to make teleportation a controllable reality. These physicists confirmed that perfect teleportation is indeed possible in principle, and that preliminary success had already been achieved, in experiments involving photons, light fields, nuclear spins and trapped ions.
However, there was a catch. The concept of teleportation they wrote about involves the transfer of information rather than actual physical matter, with the important action taking place at the subatomic—or quantum—level. If this type of teleportation were to be developed, what would ultimately come out on the other end would be exact facsimiles of the original, and the original would actually be destroyed in the process of making the copy.
If it could someday be applied to human beings, this type of teleportation would involve the creation of a perfect clone to replace the individual being teleported.
Naturally, making the transition from the quantum realm to the world of conventional matter is a complex undertaking that will require immense research and development. But quantum teleportation is currently the only way scientists can conceive of making teleportation a reality, because it allows the exact state of a photon or atom to be transmitted in exact form from one location to another.
Quantum Teleportation Experiments: The Evidence Accumulates
An important breakthrough occurred in 2013, when scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology successfully teleported bits of information across a computer chip. Quantum computing is a hot topic and it is in this context that many experiments in teleportation are occurring. This is of course a far cry from beaming humans across the galaxy, but it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.
In this experiment, the Swiss scientists took advantage of a principle called quantum entanglement to achieve teleportation. Quantum entanglement is an essential element of quantum theory, and it describes a process whereby two particles (usually photons, or particles of light) become so fundamentally connected that any interaction with one particle simultaneously affects the other, even if they are separated by great distances. When entanglement occurs between photons, measuring one for some property will cause a mirrored image of that property to develop in its partner. The effect is instantaneous and absolutely guaranteed as long as the entangled state persists.
Essentially, a twinning process occurs where the second photon becomes a duplicate of the first photon. Using this principle, the Swiss team managed to repeatedly transport information from one point on the computer chip to another, achieving teleportation of the quantum kind.
This experiment was groundbreaking because it could have direct applications for the development of quantum computing technology. But other experiments have shown that quantum teleportation can take place over much greater distances, which could be a significant step toward teleportation of the Star Trek variety.
For example, in 1998 physicists at the California Institute of Technology successfully transmitted information about the atomic structure of a photon across one meter of coaxial cable, creating an entangled replica of the photon in the new location. Once the replica changed to reflect the characteristics of the original photon, the original photon ceased to exist, just as would be expected under the theory of quantum entanglement.
The biggest breakthrough in quantum entanglement and teleportation occurred in a 2016 study sponsored by a team of Chinese physicists. Over the course of 32 days, these scientists successfully teleported 911 photons from a ground station in Tibet to a satellite orbiting 500 kilometres above the Earth. Lasers were used to transport one of the entangled photons into space, and entanglement effects were demonstrated through the observation of correlated changes following the measurement of the entangled photon that remained on the ground.
The distances covered in these experiments ranged from 500 to 1,400 kilometres. This shattered all previous records and established the viability of quantum teleportation on larger scales.
While this experiment achieved its goals, it should be noted that several million trials were required to make that happen. This means that teleportation was successful just .0001 percent of the time. It must also be acknowledged that no specific information was actually teleported during trials, but only information about quantum states that were generated randomly through measurement.
Ultimately, real teleportation of a living being would require something more that simple photon entanglement. There are researchers looking to scale up entanglement effects, and some successes have been achieved.
The nature of the interactions required to accomplish quantum teleportation begins at the subatomic level. But that doesn’t mean it must be confined there. In a 2015 experiment performed at MIT, researchers found a way to trigger the entanglement of a set of 3,000 atoms, which began to act and react in a coordinated manner as a result of their exposure to a single photon. Through manipulation of its movement this photon was intentionally entangled with the atoms instead of another photon, which proves that quantum entanglement can be used to influence the behavior of larger particles.
The results achieved here were similar to those produced in a 2006 experiment in Denmark, where physicists successfully illuminated a cloud of atoms by teleporting photons across a distance of about a half-a-meter. Again, this experiment showed it was possible to use quantum entanglement to actually affect physical matter, and that represents an important step on the road to macro-level teleportation.
From Photons to Atoms to Molecules and Beyond
If atoms can become entangled, it is logical to assume that molecules can be, too. Everything that we see around us, including our physical bodies, are comprised of molecules, and if methods are developed to teleport molecules they could be applied to macroscopic objects of all sizes, including human beings.
Whether our consciousness would travel with us when our replicas were created in another location is a subject for speculation and debate. Scientists working within a materialist framework, where consciousness is presumed to emerge from specific arrangements of neurological circuitry, would see no reason for concern. Our clones would be new versions of us, and they could continue to live our lives without interruption.
But if consciousness does not emerge from the brain, but is instead a separate thing that only associates with it, that consciousness might not hop so easily from one body to the next. The process of teleporting a body through quantum means might actually obliterate the person’s self-awareness, or leave it stranded somewhere else, even if it created an exact copy of the body’s physical form in another place. Perhaps the new body would arrive dead, or attached to a new consciousness that was somehow different from the one connected to it previously.
Teleportation of living beings may or many not become a reality. If it does, the first human volunteers will truly be setting their feet into the unknown.
But then again, who’s to say they won’t be walking where others have already tread? In ancient texts, teleportation was an ability that some Gods had, using ancient devices. Of course, these references are dismissed as little more than myth and legend, but history has provided us with many examples of myths that were later proven to be true.
Could it be that an advanced race that came before us already developed this technology? If so, perhaps we are only following in their footsteps, and rediscovering an art that was once openly practiced on this planet. We’d need the capacity to travel back in time to be sure, which is yet another Star Trek concept waiting to be developed.
Top image: Man teleporting. Credit: adimas / Adobe Stock
By Nathan Falde