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The Future: Teleportation

The Future: Teleportation

Recent advances in teleportation science got us all excited about the prospect of being able to ping ourselves here, there and everywhere across the globe and even into space. Leila Sattary takes a look at how long we'll have to wait.

Ever since the wheel was invented over 5,000 years ago, the human race has been devising new ways to travel.

All vehicles throughout history, from the bicycle to Concorde, have reduced the time it takes to get from A to B. But all current modes of transport have an intrinsic failing. They move us through physical space, whether that is stuck in traffic on the M4 or shooting into space in a rocket.

Now imagine how the world would change if human teleportation became a reality. You could get to the shops without a car, abroad without a plane, to the International Space Station without a spacecraft, and all in the blink of an eye. The human race - masters of space and time! Now that really does sound like a line out of a sci-fi film.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; scientists are at the stage of transporting a small number of particles rather than human test subjects. However, teleportation is moving from theory to experiment.

So how does teleportation work?
Teleportation of sorts happens every day; phones, faxes, e-mails. These involve making a copy of the original object, sending it to a new location and then reading it out on the other side.

The idea of ‘quantum teleportation’, which has been knocking around for a few years now, starts with the same concept and mixes in a little quantum mechanics. By adding ‘entangled quantum states’, when two atoms or two laser beams are inextricably dependent on one another, i.e. ‘entangled’, it is possible to make a link between two ends of the line.

In the case of particles, ‘entangled’ means that if one is rotating in one direction, the other one will always be rotating in the opposite direction, and vice versa. As a result, measurements performed on one particle seem to be instantaneously influence the other particle entangled with it. If there is a change in one entangled state then the other reacts and sends the information instantaneously.

But quantum teleportation isn’t a particularly reliable way to teleport something if you want it to get there in one piece, and has so far only succeeded in transporting photons (particles of light) and single atoms.

Recently scientists have turned to a new method, which uses something called a Bose-Einstein condensate (click here for the full story). Ashton Bradley who headed the recent research in Australia said, ‘We are talking about 5,000 particles disappearing from one place and appearing somewhere else.’

But when can we buy our teleportation machines?
If we can teleport atoms, surely it’s only a matter of time before we can teleport larger objects, like humans?

"It would take 100 million centuries to transmit the information.  It would be quicker to walk!"
One major obstacle is computing power. The American National Institute of Health estimates that it would take 1023 bits (yes, that’s 24 zeros) to ‘record’ every detail of a human body down to 1mm precision. And with today’s best optical fibres it would take a hundred million centuries to transmit this information. It would be easier to walk!

Assuming that the problem of computing power could be solved, there are still other barriers to overcome. For a person to be teleported, a machine would have to built that can analyse all of the billions of billions of atoms that make up the human body, then recreate them at another location with exact accuracy to avoid neurological or physiological defects. This has been coined ‘biodigital cloning.’

In a sense, travellers would have to die and then be rebuilt; believers in the supernatural might consider this as the soul being destroyed or copied. However, if you ignore the philosophical implications, it is possible to conceive concepts like ‘virtual medicine’ where the human copy is improved on transport, or ‘suspended animation’ where information is stored to create a copy in the event of mishap.

The world will not have to tackle the morality of teleportation just yet, as we are decades away from pinging humans here, there and everywhere. But just letting our imaginations run wild for a minute, if the efficiency was maximised, we could cut carbon emissions as well as making traffic jams a thing of the past. It seems only a small step from that to finishing a day’s work at a space office on Mars and pressing a button to beam home for dinner.

If you like Leila's style, why not find out what she thought about NASA's $19 million toilet?  Or try her homepage.

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Image: Sandor Fegyverneky

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13 Oct 2010
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