Teleportation has been fascinating sci-fi fans for years. Most people are familiar with the words “Beam me up, Scotty!” even if they’ve never seen Star Trek, and know of the movie “The Fly” (probably the 1986 remake with Jeff Goldblum) in which a man teleportation goes wrong and transforms a man into human-fly hybrid being.
So, first of all – what is teleportation?
Generally, teleportation could be defined as moving matter (even a human) from one point to another without physically crossing the space in between. In most fiction about teleportation, this happens nearly instantaneously.
How far are we in making teleportation a reality?
There are a few different methods to approach the problem out there, including quantum teleportation, wormholes, and psychokinesis. They’re discussed here in a bit of detail, but if you’re keen on a quick answer just click here to jump to the bottom.
Currently, quantum teleportation is the most promising approach. Teleportation of photons (light particles) over a distance of 143km has been achieved in 2012 and in 2014, scientists managed to achieve a reliable way to transfer data. This might not seem very impressive at first, but it’s a beginning and much further than scientists a few decades ago believed we would ever get!
How quantum teleportation works (this is where it gets a bit technical…):
Imagine 2 particles, both of them vibrating. Now imagine they are vibrating in unison; they are ‘entangled’, and what affects one also affects the other. Even if they are lightyears apart, they can still maintain this state of entanglement (if that doesn’t sound like true love…). For us as observers, the entanglement means that if you measure one particle, you automatically and immediately have information about the other.
Now, imagine further: We want to teleport information from one particle, S(ource), to another one, D(estination). These particles are some distance apart and not entangled. We introduce a third particle, E, which is entangled with D, and let it come into contact with S. S scans E, and the information is transferred from S to E. Due to E being entangled with D, the information is instantly transferred to D.
In this process, the information within S is destroyed. This is due to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle which states that you can’t know a particle’s position and speed at the same time.
Scientists have proved that this works for photons and quantum states, though not yet for any solid objects. The next steps will be trying to transport the information of atoms, and then a virus, but this might be years in the future still.
This short video might help:
Why this hasn’t let us teleport people yet, what are the issues/problems?
There are some big problems to realising this method, even if all goes according to plan, unlike in “The Fly”…
1. The information in the original gets destroyed: Basically, the quantum states of the particles are what is being recreated at the destination, and not the particles themselves. This sounds a bit uncomfortable for any person hoping to get teleported! The theory though is that the original gets disintegrated while it is being recreated at the other end. So in the end, we would have an exact copy of ourselves at the other end… But does a copy of ourselves have our consciousness, memories, dreams, etc? Is the copy us? Is it human? Or is it ‘just’ a copy? There are many philosophical and ethical questions around this (e.g. the Teletransportation Paradox); we also recommend reading this great philosophical comic if you’re interested in the topic.
2. Amount of data: There are approximately 10^28 atoms in one human; for each single atom we would need to transmit information about its location, momentum and internal quantum state. That’s a hell of a lot of data to process. Quantum computing (which is based on quantum teleportation as well) might be a solution for this, but is still in its infancy.
3. Speed: One of the requirements for this process is classical communication, to transmit the decoding information to the destination. Even though the main information is transferred instantaneously (through the entanglement), delivering the decoding information is restricted by the speed of light. That’s still pretty fast, and on earth we might not notice the difference, but once we teleport in outer space, things might take a while.
4. Communication link: A link for the classical communication has to be established before the process, similar to a telegraph system.
5. Scan equipment: Wavelengths for the scan would need to be very small to cope with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, requiring a huge lens with an aperture of at least several hundred km.
And then of course we’d also need reconstruction equipment at the other end…
In short – very small ‘things’ (photons, quantum states and data) have been teleported using quantum teleportation. However, getting to a stage where a human can be teleported might take centuries, if it is possible at all.
Unfortunately there is no evidence yet that wormholes or parallel universes exist, so this way of teleportation is staying theoretical for now. Bugger!
Teleportation by psychokinesis describes the (alleged) ability of some people to move objects using only their mental abilities with no physical force applied. According to a report published by the Air Force Research Laboratory, a series of scientific experiments demonstrated and documented this method of teleportation.
The report tells us about a Chinese paper published in 1981 describes rigorously controlled and repeatable experiments in which children teleported small objects (like watches, paper and insects) over a few metres. In addition, more research by the Aerospace Medicine Engineering Institute in Beijing in 1990 allegedly showed similar findings.
We were unable to locate either of the original papers to investigate further. There is also no other data out there supporting the claims in the report, and scientific communities are sceptical (e.g. why would the military approve a report detailing these findings to the general public, when it could make use of these techniques?). In general, we were unable to locate any reliable and reproducible scientific studies confirming that psychokinesis actually does exist.
Therefore, this method of teleporting objects is unfortunately not leading us anywhere either.
Where does all this leave us?
Psychokinesis – never been scientifically proven to work.
Wormholes and parallel universes – theory only so far (though mathematics predict they do exist).
Quantum entanglement and quantum teleportation – the most promising approach, though it might take a few hundred years until we overcome at least the technical challenges, if that is possible at all. Most likely we’ll only be able to teleport small objects, not humans.
So it looks as though teleportation is not a realistic option in our lifetime. But don’t despair, there are many other exciting transportation technologies that will be available in the nearer future!
- Title picture: Asgard transporter, Stargate, Second Life By Jin Zan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- Lorentzian Wormhole By AllenMcC. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- PK spirit photographer By Édouard Isidore Buguet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
- Bonsor, K & Lamb, R (2014) “How Teleportation Will Work”. Available online.
- Davis, EW (2004) “Teleportation Physics Study”, Air Force Research Laboratory (AFMC). Available online.
- Kaku, M (2008) “Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration of the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation and Time Travel”, Penguin UK.
- Mochon (2006) “Introduction to Quantum Teleportation”. Available online.
- Redd, NT (2013) “What is a Wormhole?”, on Space.com Available online.
- Wikipedia “Quantum teleportation”; “Teleportation in fiction”
- And any websites linked above.