Teleportation For Dummies

How can we be sure if it’s really you on the other side?

If you were hoping for a physics update on theories and solutions to teleportation, you can scroll down to “Teleportation methods”. But frankly, that’s of secondary concern here.

Instead, I will treat you to a dry philosophical examination of the nature of consciousness, and the problems to its continuity presented in things like sleep, death, and yes, teleportation. How fun is that?! Nothing better to get you into the holiday spirit, if you ask me.

If I still have you after this caveat, let’s proceed. Very little of what follows is my original thinking, in fact, this is mostly a book review of Derek Parfit’s classic Reasons and Persons extended with some of my own thoughts and findings. It’s probably been the hardest book to read as a layman, besides the Bible, so here’s the “for dummies” version that I took away and maybe you can digest, too.

Some quick definitions for context

Before we start beaming up anyone, let’s establish what exactly we’re talking about here. Who are “you”, what is consciousness, why is sleep different from death, and when do we get on to teleportation?

The many versions of you that one can subscribe to. Source: Me.

Versions of you

Since we’re going to be referring to “you” a lot, it makes sense to agree on how we think about that definition. Depending on your views, you would strongly prefer one of the following:

  1. Body — The sack of meat you were born into.
  2. Mind — Your brain and the thoughts and memories in it.
  3. Identity — A set of unique memories, experiences, and actions associated with you by others.
  4. Consciousness — Your awareness of your existence inclusive of your identity, mind, and body (see below).
  5. Soul — Some kind of spiritual construct that is associated with our body and mind but is neither, and still is the real you. Somehow.

Consciousness

If we can assume the existence of consciousness is a given, well, because you are experiencing anything at all, even reading this sentence, then we can move on quickly to what we care about: continuity of consciousness. Imagine that every time you went to sleep, you effectively died, and the person waking up had your memories, but there was a discontinuity of some sort. By discontinuity, I’m implying each day was a different you. You today only lived a day, before some other you take over tomorrow. Before you freak out, it doesn’t seem like that’s what happens, more on that in the next section. Just highlighting why continuity matters more than anything.

If you’re not satisfied with this quick definition of consciousness and have an extra 25 minutes on your hands, you’ll want to bookmark this for later:

Sleep

We all sleep, but it’s important to note there are two clearly distinct forms of sleep: dreaming and deep sleep. Yes, there are more nuances, but for our purpose, we’re interested mainly in deep sleep. Why? Because in dreams you maintain consciousness, even if you lose external perception. Deep sleep on the other hand is the experience of nothing. For all you know, you’re knocked out, drugged, or comatose. Or just taking a nap. Time and duration lose meaning. Crucially, in all these states, brain activity never completely ceases. Its integrity and data are maintained. Thus, whether waking up from a decade long coma or dozing off at your desk, you pick up where you left off. There’s continuity of memory and identity. There’s never any question of who woke up.

Death

This is pretty self-explanatory but certainly debatable as to what follows. In scientific terms, we’re talking heart stopped, no blood flowing through the brain, brain shut down and immediately decaying. Point of no return, at least physically. This is the difference between comatose and vegetative. In the latter, there is zero brain activity. The only question is, once you cross that boundary, is that it? End of the show? Certainly, any religion would confidently claim no. All major religions include an afterlife on the menu. Ever asked why? Well, one way to think of it is simply it makes life more comfortable. It takes away the fear and concern for death, at least to an extent. If there’s paradise or at least reincarnation, the story continues in some form. If you had a tough go this time around, there’s always another chance. Of course, science says hard pass. At least the science we have at this time.

Continuity of “you”

Regardless of how you see it, what’s going to count for the prize here is continuity. Continuity means you stay you, instead of something akin to cloning. Luckily for us, we have philosophers like Derek Parfit to make sense of such things. Parfit claims the following as definitions of continuity of “you”:

  1. Physical Continuity
    Here we require your living body to continue uninterrupted. What about injuries? No problem as long as you are alive. What about cell repair if the human body renews each cell every few years? Well, except your brain cells which are mostly intact. No problem, as long as you are alive and awake. So is it JUST all about the brain? Science says probably yes. There are neurons in other parts of your body, such as your gut and heart. But as far as we know, people receiving heart transplants claim to be the same person, for the most part at least.
  2. Psychological Continuity
    This is similar to Physical Continuity, but we don’t care about atoms. Just mental things, you might say the contents but not the vessel. As long as there is a strong connection between memories, thoughts, and experiences it all checks out. Like how regular people might think of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. That feels continuous, but this year vs. last year already feels pretty loose. You as an adult vs. newborn almost feels like another person. This definition allows for far more gray area than Physical Continuity, as we will explore.

The question is, which do you need to remain you? Or do you need both…? Hold that thought.

Teleportation methods

Okay, let’s get to the juicy stuff. When do we send someone to Mars, or at least the other room?

Certainly, there are many ways to think of teleportation. The most famous being Star Trek’s Transporter. For the sake of our interest, we will look at two cases specifically:

  1. Teleportation where all of your physical material is directly transferred.
  2. Teleportation where only the information about your physical material is transferred.

Hold up, which one is Star Trek? Well, according to Wikipedia: “Transporters convert a person or object into an energy pattern, then ‘beam’ it to a target location, where it is reconverted into matter.” So there you go. Trekkies clearly belong to the information-only camp, since matter was converted and therefore momentarily non-existent.

Wait up. Does any transportation that is faster than light count? I say nay. Even if we had something that could transport you faster than light, it would still take eons to traverse the galaxy, let alone even the next one over, The Large Magellanic Cloud. So no, Faster-Than-Light doesn’t count here. We need snap-of-the-fingers instant travel.

Type 1: Physical material transfer

Let’s get one thing straight right away. You’re not traveling as a whole entity but in pieces. Why not the full body? Well, there’s currently no theoretical basis for how or why that would be possible. Obviously, if it were, then the whole problem goes away, as it would be the same as taking the bus, just at speed infinity. But it doesn’t seem possible within known physics. Of course, that hasn’t stopped people from actually patenting such devices. I mean, just in case, right? Shockingly, the application wasn’t approved.

“The invention is not supported by a credible utility or well-established utility because the claims call for the generation of gravitational waves and the interacting of the waves with hyperspace and the effects which are asserted to come from such interactions. The existence of hyperspace is not well proven or shown to exist in accordance with credible science and physics.” — Patent Office

If you wanted to entertain other speculative ideas, with no basis in known physics, sci-fi offers many alternatives. For example, Hyperion has the Farcaster, a door looking thing that basically momentarily just takes you through another dimension. Well, a sub-Plank-length quantum dimension that actually turned out to be the force of… love. Hey, it’s sci-fi, what did you expect?

So, what about real wormholes then? Technical name: Einstein–Rosen Bridge (read the original paper from 1935). Despite the fact that wormholes are a theory, albeit a strong one from Einstein himself, we’ve never seen one. Not even in data such as gravitational waves we’ve already successfully used to “see” black holes. Just math. But let’s work with it.

So, even if we used a wormhole, you still need to squeeze through the bottleneck in the middle, i.e. the singularity. That’s a point of size nothing. Think of it like a jigsaw puzzle that starts out as a completed set. Then you break it apart to fit, somehow and redo the puzzle on the other side. Same pieces in the same order, the pieces themselves are never destroyed. Of course, it’s an open question about how big the meat chunks are. Actual chunks? Molecules? Atoms? Particles? Strings…? I suppose it doesn’t make much difference, as either way there’s a very clear physical discontinuity. However long this process takes, even instantaneous, there is a point at which you are not you, but a collection of disconnected matter.

Your journey of being spagettified by the wormhole. Source: Me.

So is there no way whatsoever, even in theory, to transport an entire body? Well, if you squint your brain a little, you can imagine stretching the wormhole to widen the singularity. Like a doorstop. According to Kip Thorne, Nobel price winning physicist, all you need is a good chunk of exotic matter and you’ve got yourself a Traversable Wormhole. Sweet! The math works out. Oh, wait, what’s exotic matter? We have no idea, and it shouldn’t exist according to known physics, because it has a negative mass.

You could also try extra spatial dimensions (Gauss-Bonnet Gravity), negative mass cosmic strings (Non-orientable Wormhole), or a scalar field minimally coupled to the Ricci tensor with anti-orthodox polarity (Ellis Drainhole). Yep, I checked Walmart and Alibaba. Zero hits on any of those.

Oh, and Einstein also made it clear that if you were able to pass through the singularity, which you can’t without new physics, you could travel back in time. As far as Einstein goes, that’s a big no-no for the laws of nature. So, seems like a dead-end!

This is what a traversable wormhole might look like as you teleport from the University of Tübingen with the sand dunes near Boulogne Sur Mer in the north of France. Yes, students have too much time on their hands… Source: Wikimedia.org

So what CAN we actually teleport, if anything at all?

Type 2: Information only transfer

This seems the more likely approach as far as current theory goes. We know that quantum information can travel beyond the speed of light basically across the universe, so there could be some kind of quantum tunneling system that basically passes all the states of all your particles, swoosh across the galaxy, or at least until Mars, in a blink of an eye. I mean, Quantum Teleportation has actual peer-reviewed scientific papers on it. It’s a known thing. In fact, just a few days ago Fermilab and NASA actually pulled it off, when they teleported single photons 44 kilometers. So when do you get a ride? Umm, no.

Schematic diagram of quantum teleportation. Source: Caltech.edu

Not quite what you had in mind, right? Yeah, they’re not beaming people up, just faster cat gifs over a Quantum Internet.

Obviously, despite it being a real thing, there’s no theoretical basis for scaling this up to sending humans. But hey maybe Elon will figure it out as an improved method of transport to Mars, Not So Boring Co. anyone? So let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that we had a full-scale working Quantum Teleporter.

Nothing is actually sent. It’s more like the information that makes you up is simply made available on the other side. This is quite troublesome because it makes you immediately think… what gets lost? Notice that this isn’t cloning, technically, because we’re not sending DNA and building a baby. No, we’re sending you in the precise (as far as quantum mechanics will allow it) form that you exist now. The person on the other side will be you to any outside observer. The question is, would “you” agree? Oh, and also… would you actually disappear at all from the origin, or are there now two of “you”?

Two very different outcomes from Quantum Teleportation. One lets you keep the original copy. Source: Me.

The former (Type 2A above) is basically Star Trek, whereby the material of you disappears upon teleportation, and a new version of you appears on the other end. This latter situation (Type 2B above) is like the movie The Prestige, where the fictional Nikola Tesla designs a working teleportation device that effectively makes copies each time of the person that goes in. To keep the world in order, the original copy is always “disposed of”.

So, either way, the million-dollar question is this: is teleportation like sleep, or like death? That seems to make ALL the difference.

Do you press the green button?

In the movie The Prestige, the magician seems perfectly comfortable with Type 2, and further, that the original copy, his entire being that is, is destroyed. This seems like an extreme example because clearly there is no Physical Continuity as the original body dies. He’s rolling the dice that whatever type of continuity is left, is enough to maintain his identity and therefore continued existence. What does that tell us about his beliefs?

Case 1: If you believe in an external soul

First, let’s imagine we send the whole meat bag as in Type 1. Technically, if you were momentarily deconstructed into parts, you would be dead. At least at that moment, that is. We know organs can survive outside the body, for example during organ transplants. But if you split every part of you into little pieces, possibly atoms, then does the soul skip a beat or simply disconnect?

Regardless of the teleportation method used, the result is the same. Externally the package is intact, but what about internally in terms of consciousness and soul? Source: Me.

If we grant the soul departs the body at death, when is that moment exactly? Does it wait for the decay of brain cells to be confirmed? All or some specific percentage? The odds here are still better than for Type 2, but you’d definitely be rolling the dice with your life, or soul, rather.

If only information is sent such as in Type 2, then does your soul split or get copied? Where is soul data encoded? Is it in your cells or brain activity? If it’s external, like an extra dimension, I think we can safely say the new copy of you on Mars is now a soulless zombie and you are still you. If you get destroyed in the process, you’re also soul-dead. So it’s a lose-lose.

Either way, if you are the god-fearing type, don’t press the button! Seems clear the magician didn’t take to this view.

Case 2: If you believe you’re just a collection of atoms

That means you’re a rational, materialist, reductionist. Or at least one of those things. You’re assuming Physical Continuity is most important, that your body stays alive and intact at all times, and that’s all there is to it. No soul. No harps playing. Effectively, you rule out the afterlife and reincarnation as an implication. This must be the conclusion of the magician, too.

There just isn’t any proof for a soul (Cartesian Ego), and in fact, there’s quite a lot of argument from biology, neuroscience, and physics that an external soul cannot exist. Sorry, Descartes, at least you still got the coordinate system we all use and love. If there’s no soul, no ego, what’s left? Besides consciousness, is there… anything?

Well, depends on your view, as there is no hard proof on this yet, either way. A Buddhist might say there’s nothing, and most Hindus would agree, or at least that ultimately all is one. So would these guys insist on both physical and Psychological Continuity, too? Probably not. That’s a pretty shocking thought for me as a Western materialist. But here’s the thing. If you look at our behavior, none of us actually care about our future selves. Think about that for a second, and check yourself.

There’s such a thing as Self-Interest Theory, which Parfit thoroughly examines and ultimately destroys in his book. We like to believe we do everything in our own interest, but we also smoke, drink, don’t exercise, don’t save, don’t invest, and so on. So we think we care about our future, but we really seem to only care about our immediate surroundings in time and space. The drinking and spending makes us happier right now, so barfing tomorrow with empty pockets is that guy's problem. We effectively only live for today, which is outrageous.

Ironically, the situation is the exact opposite of time and teleportation. While there is no discontinuity to disrupt consciousness and soul, it is clear that over time your body, mind, and identity are not static. In fact, from birth to death they have almost nothing in common, even under the microscope.

Source: Me.

Similarly, we don’t much care about our past selves. Hard decisions and pains at the exact moment seem far less of a concern after they are over. We struggle to put ourselves in the shoes of our former selves of years or decades in history. We simply are here and now, as the Buddha would say, despite what we convince ourselves in our ruminations.

So where does all this leave us in terms of teleportation methods?

Type 1 (Meat only): Well, if the meat gets chopped to bits that’s a deal-breaker for Physical Continuity right there. If you’re fine with Psychological Continuity, as you should from the above reasoning, you should be good to go! Press the button?

Type 2 (Data only): Pretty clear there’s no Physical Continuity. Psychological Continuity should be fine though, as all the data is transferred without a hitch. Press the button?

Well, rationally, the conclusion is that you should have no reason to insist on both Physical and Psychological Continuity. Logically, it shouldn’t matter either way. You should push the button whether you effectively die or not because the data says you don’t care either way. Someone with your identity will wake up on the other side, and carry on your path and legacy. Externally no one else can tell something was lost, so what’s to worry about? At worst, the relationship is of that to a child of yours. If that’s enough, then beam me up, Scotty?

This was clearly enough for the magician. What about you? Why the hesitation..? What did we miss?

Option 3: My gut says something else is there

Here’s the punchline then. The end of the road. It comes down to what you believe is the actual “you”. If you discount the soul, there’s body, mind, consciousness, and identity. Do you need the whole list to survive, or is identity enough? In that case, you would be happy even with a clone surviving in your place. The clone would absolutely, fundamentally believe itself to be you, just that your body, mind, and consciousness would die. Not even your family would know any difference. What’s the problem, then?

Perhaps, there’s some “further fact” that you can’t put your finger on, but your intuition feels is important? It’s the ultimate philosophical cop-out. Derek Parfit introduced the idea because it feels like there is a “further fact” beyond our body and brains that defines “you”. If you only ship body and brain in a beam of light, who’s to guarantee “you” arrive at all?

Parfit never elaborates what such further facts could be, beyond the already discussed soul, which seems intractable. David Chalmers has proposed consciousness itself to be that further fact. It seems to come down to the precise nature and location of consciousness, both of which are currently unknown. I’ve written at length about that before, so check it out if interested. For the sake of this argument, we have a strong candidate for a further fact.

So what? Well, if we can’t confidently claim that survival of body and brain is enough to take along consciousness for the ride, teleportation is effectively equivalent to death. For you as “you” now exist, at least. At the moment of teleportation, it would be the equivalent of you simultaneously being cloned and killed. How could that be, if all the meat and brain was sent successfully? Well, since we don’t know, we can only speculate about ways in which consciousness might get left behind.

One such idea has been put forth by David Chalmers in Panpsychism. Yes, that even rocks have feelings. Or at least, that consciousness could be a fundamental feature of the universe, that our body and/or mind channels to create our experience of awareness. Kind of like a radio that listens to waves in the electromagnetic field. If teleportation momentarily disrupts the receiver, does the signal pick right back up, pick a different frequency, or lose the signal altogether?

Another possibility is Quantum Consciousness, proposed by Nobel Prize winner Sir Roger Penrose. His idea is that microtubules, near Planck-scale objects within brain cells, could maintain states of quantum entanglement, serving as a source of consciousness. During teleportation, as the jigsaw puzzle of your atoms is reconstructed, it would seem probable such delicate entangled states, were they real, would have been lost in translation.

Meaning you’re dead. Don’t press the green button!

Oh, wait, what about…

If you’re following along until now, then there are a few other implications that relate to our immediate future. Given the rapid progress we’ve made in technology, it seems a few post-human scenarios from sci-fi are suddenly within reach. When nearing or even upon death, you might choose to either freeze yourself (available today) or upload your mind to the cloud. If we compare them to teleportation, what can we say about your survival?

Source: Me.

Is Cryogenics effectively making you a frozen veggie popsicle or genuinely awaiting rebirth? I mean, it is plausible to restore at least partial Physical Continuity, since at least most of your brain cells can be suspended in the freezer, assuming you were frozen within minutes of death. But when you wake up, like in Vanilla Sky, is it you waking up or basically a new entity that just has your brain cells? There is one key difference between deep sleep and being frozen. Because your brain activity has ceased when you legally died, and they cut off your head to fit in the freezer next to the pea & carrot mix, I find it hard to believe consciousness could be revived from cellular matter alone. Why? Because brain activity, even if barely noticeable, is continuous in all other conditions in life, so the association between consciousness and brain activity is strong at least. Besides consciousness, it remains unclear whether some future technology could revive your memories from brain cells, therefore leaving the door open for partial Psychological Continuity. At best though, it would be like cloning, starting from scratch with the same DNA, possibly memories, but certainly no continuity of consciousness. Maybe just have kids and save some money?

The final frontier is then a digital life, where you upload your mind into the machine. But is that you in the app, or just a cheap avatar? It goes without saying that you’ll go in without your body, but to what extent your mind can survive going binary is an open question. Elon Musk seems to suggest we could take a stab with Neuralink, even taking backups of memories. That would be pretty close to ticking the box. However, it seems a stretch to suggest there is a seamless transition of consciousness into the computer, effectively coming along for the ride. At best, it would be a new artificial consciousness with your memories and intelligence.

So, I say just make the most of this life, cause it’s the only one we’re gonna get and still be along for the ride as we currently know it. Maybe invest in regular exercise and a healthy diet, and take some Resveratrol.

But do NOT press the green button…

Thinks about the future a lot. Founder of two startups. Lives in Singapore.

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