Thursday, June 9, 2011

Why Teleportation Scares the Hell Out of Me

Man, driving can be annoying. Plane flights? Have fun arriving an hour early and waiting three hours for the flight to even show up. Even if you need to go to the grocery store during an ice storm, you might not be able to walk up the hill at the front of your neighborhood.

It sure would be nice if we could teleport. It would solve a lot of our problems, both transportation- and energy-wise. We could just zap our packages over to another person’s house when we sell something online. You could live in Boston and work in New Delhi, and your commute would be as difficult as walking into the next room.

Ideally, this makes sense. We all want easy, quick, cheap transportation, and we’re sick of paying high gas prices anyway. It seems to be the way of the future. After all, they have it on Star Trek, right?

Not exactly. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the Star Trek series, didn’t initially envision such a device. Instead, he expected the Enterprise to land and drop off passengers every time they visited a planet. But because this would have cost a lot of time and money for the television series, and because crossfading video techniques were so cheap, the series developed the Transporter, a device which moves objects from the ship to the surface of a planet (or other location.)

The theory behind the device is that an object or person is “dematerialized,” being converted into an energy pattern; the pattern is then beamed to another location and ”rematerialized.” This process, the destruction and reassembly of the body, is precisely what bothers me so much. It’s not that I worry that it’ll be uncomfortable or frightening, it’s that there’s no way to tell if it actually recreates the original person.

The brain is a crazy thing. It’s simply a collection of neurons arranged in a specific way. Everything about us—all our emotions, behaviors, knowledge, and memories—are simply patterns of neurons. Because of this, if for some reason there’s a weird arrangement of neurons that creates a false memory, you’ll swear that it actually happened. It will feel like a complete fact to you, even though it’s completely absurd, and solely because of the pattern of cells in your brain.

Deja vu might work similarly: In all moments of every day, your current experience is being stored in your short-term memory. One deja vu theory suggests that the brain temporarily and accidentally stores those current experiences in the long-term memory. As a result, the brain is confused into thinking that what is currently being experienced is analogous to an experience from long ago. You end up thinking “What a minute, I’ve done this before!” yet it’s a total illusion.

So let’s assume that a teleporter is highly accurate and can scan your body exactly, recording the precise positions of every atom in your body, and can rematerialize a completely identical body in the destination location. Every mole, every hair, every tiny spec of the organelles of body cells are perfectly intact, in place, and composed as they were before dematerialization. Thus, the brain is rematerialized identically—with the exact same pattern of neurons, and therefore, the exact same emotions, behaviors, knowledge, and memories.

The first body was destroyed in much the same manner that a body would be destroyed by being thrown into a wood chipper, but with a cleaner method. A physical change occurs, breaking the matter down into much smaller pieces. The body, brain, and consciousness no longer exist. Well, in theory, they kind of do: The matter, converted to energy, is being beamed through the air.

On the other end, the energy is converted back into matter and reassembled to be identical to the original. However, this new body has the same memories as the original, but is in fact a completely new organism. Therefore, if I stepped into a teleporter, smiling, and waved a temporary bye to everyone who would then watch my body be dematerialized, they’d be watching my violent death.

Not in the way that the teleporter malfunctioned in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, where two officers writhed in agony, screaming until their bodies were destroyed and nothing ultimately rematerialized. Not even in the way that human DNA mixed with insect DNA in The Fly to create an individual who slowly morphed into a disgusting mutant. Nope, this would be a quick, exciting, and consequences-free death in which no one would ever know that it happened.

Here’s my main concern: I’ve stepped into a teleporter, endured my body being completely annihilated, and died. I no longer exist. My consciousness doesn’t go on. My journey in this vessel has come to an end.

Meanwhile, at the destination, a new individual is born and comes into existence, realizing consciousness. He is identical to me in every way. He has all of my long-term memories and probably my short-term memories as well. He knows everything I did, including anything I’ve never told anyone. He truly believes that he is me, and that he has always been me. Everyone around him would assume that it’s me, the teleportation was a success, and life goes on.

Because everyone who is teleported comes out thinking they’re the person who was just dematerialized, there is no way to know for certain whether it’s the same person as before. Consciousness is a weird thing. Did I die? Did my consciousness go on? The only way to know for sure is to experience it yourself. Unfortunately, every rematerialized human will swear that the teleportation was a consequences-free success.

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