Opinion: Fantasy Becoming Reality: Teleportation

Editor’s Note: This is the third installment of a five part series about the technologies of yesterday’s science fiction becoming the reality of tomorrow.  The first installment on flying cars can be viewed here, and the second installment on invisibility cloaks can be viewed here.

One of the constants of technological advancement has been our attempt to create faster and faster modes of transportation. From the horse and buggy to the automobile, to the commercial jet, society has made great progress in this department. The development of flying cars, which I discussed in my first article, represents our desire to find even faster ways to get from point A to point B. Even so, all land, air and sea methods of transportation face a common problem: the need to cross a physical distance.  

But what if we developed a new form of transportation that could instantly get us to anywhere on the planet or perhaps even the universe? This would allow us to bypass the need to cross a physical distance, thus eliminating time and space from travel. In the Star Trek universe, a device called a transporter converts a person or object into an energy pattern (dematerialization) before “beaming” it to a target where it is reconverted into the original person or object (rematerialization).

Believe it or not, scientific experiments have achieved teleportation with photons, quantum energy particles that carry light. In 1998, physicists at Caltech read the atomic structure of a photon, sent the information across a meter of coaxial cable, and created a replica of the photon. While a significant milestone in quantum physics, the teleportation of matter (atoms) is a whole different ballgame. But, fear not wannabe teleporter; In 2009 at the Joint Quantum Institute, researchers successfully teleported information between two isolated atoms the distance of about a meter. While this may not sound very momentous, it represented the first time information was teleported between atoms that were completely separated.

How was the JQI team able to attain these incredible results? By a phenomenon called quantum entanglement. This phenomenon, which Einstein famously referred to as “spooky action at a distance”, wasn’t experimentally observed until about three decades after his death. When two objects are put into an entangled state, which can theoretically occur over any distance, their properties are intertwined. The two objects will be perfectly anti-correlated, meaning that measuring the properties of one object instantly determines the properties of the other. Because this process occurs many times faster than the speed of light, it is essentially instantaneous. Consider a coin that is split horizontally so that each “half-coin” is either heads or tails. Each half-coin is put in a separate envelope and distributed randomly to John and Mary. The moment John “measures” his half-coin by opening the envelope Mary knows exactly whether her half-coin is heads or tails.

How exactly does this apply to teleportation? Well, the JQI team set up their experiment by first isolating two atoms, A and B, in separate high-vacuum environments. A laser-pulse causes each atom to emit a photon, which proceed to become entangled. In the extremely complicated and technical process that follows, the measurement of atom A reveals the state of atom B. As theorized, atom A is destroyed, as all information it contained has been erased. But because these two atoms are entangled, atom B then takes on the exact properties of atom A. Atom A has been teleported.

Confused? Think about this process in terms of two common office machines: a fax machine and a shredder. In the experiment, atom A was effectively “faxed”.  An exact copy was made and sent to the location of atom B. But, because quantum mechanics forbids the creation of identical copies of quantum states, atom A is “shredded” and destroyed. For all intents and purposes, atom B has become atom A. What distinguishes teleportation from common forms of communication such as faxing? In teleportation, no information actually passes from one entity to the other. Instead, information about the original object disappears before reappearing once it has been teleported. When thinking about teleportation, don’t think about a physical object actually being transported. Instead, think about the exact information about the composition of the object being transported before an exact copy is made.

Does this mean we are close to creating a real-life transporter? Not exactly. Teleporting a human would require a machine that can successfully identify and analyze all of the 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms in the human body before transporting the information and reconstructing the person with meticulous accuracy. Even one atom out of place could lead to serious physiological defects. Also, this process would involve the original entity being destroyed. The teleported information would recreate the exact atomic structure of the person, leading to the person possessing the exact memories, thoughts, and emotions of the original. Although it is easy to be skeptical that this could ever be possible, it is important to recognize that we are in the infancy of this technology. Just as people two centuries ago couldn’t fathom the technology we have today, two centuries from now we may be baffled at what is possible.

Even if we are never able to teleport a human being, these experiments are groundbreaking for the future of computing. Quantum computers, which are still years away from practical use, employ quantum bits, or qubits for short, which use quantum mechanical phenomena, such as entanglement, to perform calculations. While a normal computer can only perform one calculation at once, the ability of qubits to contain multiple states simultaneously allow quantum computers to perform millions of calculations at once, resulting in a machine that is millions of times more powerful than the most powerful supercomputers that exist today. Recently, D-wave Systems made history by creating the world’s first quantum computer, an achievement that put the company on the cover of TIME Magazine.

The implications of this technology are profound. The power of quantum computers could allow us to solve problems that would take conventional computers centuries to solve, if they could even solve them at all. Co-founder of D-wave Systems, Geordie Rose, stated that, “we’re at the stage of a first real product, but it is the beginning of something that could change the course of human history.” And this is not an overstatement. In medicine, quantum computers could analyze genetic patterns and discover a cure for cancer and other diseases. They could also map amino acids and analyze DNA sequences to allow us to develop better drug-based treatments. Quantum computers could more precisely predict the weather making weather-related deaths a thing of the past. The possibilities are endless and it’s incredible to think that we are on the frontier of this technology.

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