What is Teleportation?
Teleportation involves dematerializing an object at one point, and sending the details of that object's precise atomic configuration to another location, where it will be reconstructed. What this means is that time and space could be eliminated from travel -- we could be transported to any location instantly, without actually crossing a physical distance.
Most of us were introduced to the idea of teleportation, and other futuristic technologies, by the short-lived Star Trek television series (1966-69) based on tales written by Gene Roddenberry. Viewers watched in amazement as Captain Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy and others beamed down to the planets they encountered on their journeys through the universe.
In 1993, the idea of teleportation moved out of the realm of science fiction and into the world of theoretical possibility. It was then that physicist Charles Bennett and a team of researchers at IBM confirmed that quantum teleportation was possible, but only if the original object being teleported was destroyed. This revelation, first announced by Bennett at an annual meeting of the American Physical Society in March 1993, was followed by a report on his findings in the March 29, 1993 issue of Physical Review Letters. Since that time, experiments using photons have proven that quantum teleportation is in fact possible.
In 1998, physicists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), along with two European groups, turned the IBM ideas into reality by successfully teleporting a photon, a particle of energy that carries light. The Caltech group was able to read the atomic structure of a photon, send this information across 1 meter (3.28 feet) of coaxial cable and create a replica of the photon. As predicted, the original photon no longer existed once the replica was made.
In performing the experiment, the Caltech group was able to get around the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the main barrier for teleportation of objects larger than a photon. This principle states that you cannot simultaneously know the location and the speed of a particle. But if you can't know the position of a particle, then how can you teleport it? In order to teleport a photon without violating the Heisenberg Principle, the Caltech physicists used a phenomenon known as entanglement. In entanglement, at least three photons are needed to achieve quantum teleportation:
If researchers tried to look too closely at photon A without entanglement, they would bump it, and thereby change it. By entangling photons B and C, researchers can extract some information about photon A, and the remaining information would be passed on to B by way of entanglement, and then on to photon C. When researchers apply the information from photon A to photon C, they can create an exact replica of photon A. However, photon A no longer exists as it did before the information was sent to photon C.
- Photon A: The photon to be teleported
- Photon B: The transporting photon
- Photon C: The photon that is entangled with photon B
In other words, when Captain Kirk beams down to an alien planet, an analysis of his atomic structure is passed through the transporter room to his desired location, where a replica of Kirk is created and the original is destroyed.
A more recent teleportation success was achieved at the Australian National University, when researchers successfully teleported a laser beam (click here to learn about this project).
While the idea of creating replicas of objects and destroying the originals doesn't sound too inviting for humans, quantum teleportation does hold promise for quantum computing. These experiments with photons are important in developing networks that can distribute quantum information. Professor Samuel Braunstein, of the University of Wales, Bangor, called such a network a "quantum Internet." This technology may be used one day to build a quantum computer that has data transmission rates many times faster than today's most powerful computers.
We are years away from the development of a teleportation machine like the transporter room on Star Trek's Enterprise spaceship. The laws of physics may even make it impossible to create a transporter that enables a person to be sent instantaneously to another location, which would require travel at the speed of light.
For a person to be transported, a machine would have to be built that can pinpoint and analyze all of the 1028 atoms that make up the human body. That's more than a trillion trillion atoms. This machine would then have to send this information to another location, where the person's body would be reconstructed with exact precision. Molecules couldn't be even a millimeter out of place, lest the person arrive with some severe neurological or physiological defect.
In the Star Trek episodes, and the spin-off series that followed it, teleportation was performed by a machine called a transporter. This was basically a platform that the characters stood on, while Scotty adjusted switches on the transporter room control boards. The transporter machine then locked onto each atom of each person on the platform, and used a transporter carrier wave to transmit those molecules to wherever the crew wanted to go. Viewers watching at home witnessed Captain Kirk and his crew dissolving into a shiny glitter before disappearing, rematerializing instantly on some distant planet.
If such a machine were possible, it's unlikely that the person being transported would actually be "transported." It would work more like a fax machine -- a duplicate of the person would be made at the receiving end, but with much greater precision than a fax machine. But what would happen to the original? One theory suggests that teleportation would combine genetic cloning with digitization.
In this biodigital cloning, tele-travelers would have to die, in a sense. Their original mind and body would no longer exist. Instead, their atomic structure would be recreated in another location, and digitization would recreate the travelers' memories, emotions, hopes and dreams. So the travelers would still exist, but they would do so in a new body, of the same atomic structure as the original body, programmed with the same information.
But like all technologies, scientists are sure to continue to improve upon the ideas of teleportation, to the point that we may one day be able to avoid such harsh methods. One day, one of your descendents could finish up a work day at a space office above some far away planet in a galaxy many light years from Earth, tell his or her wristwatch that it's time to beam home for dinner on planet X below and sit down at the dinner table as soon as the words leave his mouth.
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