Future Tech: Teleportation
Future questions answered, definitively
We’ve all been waiting for certain tech to be invented and, largely thanks to Hollywood, our hopes have been built and built but constantly dashed. So fed up without any actual answers, we’ve took it upon ourselves to answer 10 of the classic tech questions once and for all.
We've already examined such visionary subjects as the prospect of flying cars, robots in the home the potential of holodeck simulations and the invisibility cloak. T3 now turns its attention to: Teleportation
What's the big idea?
Travel, Jim, but not as we know it. Teleportation would involve technology that grabs hold of every atom in your body, transports them through space and reassembles them exactly as they were in a new location. Like lightspeed and Princess Leia's gold bikini, it's one of science fiction's most tantalizing promises. But incredibly, researchers have already achieved it in the lab ...sort of.
What's happening right now?
Scientists have yet to beam themselves (or any other atoms) from one place to another. What they have done is beam information. It's called quantum teleportation, and exploits the freaky world of quantum mechanics. “A particle does not disappear in one place and reappear in another, as on Star Trek,” explains Professor Benjamin Schumacher. A physicist at Kenyon College in Ohio, he reviewed a Chinese research paper last year in which information was teleported 10 miles from one photon of light to another. “The properties of one particle are wiped out and transferred to another particle some distance away.”
This is where things get weird. There is no 'signal' between the two particles, no cosmic Wi-Fi - at least none that we know about. Instead, the two particles are 'entangled' and when you manipulate one, the same effect instantly occurs on the second even though it's in another lab 10 miles down the road. “All of the work has been done via this weird pre-existing connection,” Schumacher says.
Teleportation of a few photons is not, by itself, very useful. But it is closely linked to real technologies, like quantum cryptography and quantum computing. “Information that is teleported from place to place cannot be intercepted by any eavesdropper. It's a way to create perfectly secret communication.” Quantum computing, meanwhile, will revolutionise the speed at which computers work, allowing them to make calculations in minutes that would take years with today's technology.
What's the hold-up?
“Right now we can do quantum teleportation over distances of 10-20km in free space. I expect this distance to increase by a couple of orders of magnitude in the next decade or two,” says Schumacher. The bigger hold-up may be economic. Quantum cryptology is significantly more expensive than a briefcase handcuffed to a big man with a gun.
But what about the tantalizing idea that quantum teleportation could one day be scaled up to work with an object made of a billion billion billion atoms ...such as you? It wouldn't transport the atoms themselves but all the information stored inside them – an atomic blueprint of 'you' - and transport it into a reservoir of entangled matter roughly your size in another location. “The transmitter would acquire a gigantic amount of information in the process - a quadrillion gigabytes is a low estimate,” Schumacher says. He adds that the entanglement process would also “kill you very thoroughly.”
When could we see it?
Companies selling quantum cryptology already exist, while quantum computers are four or five decades away. Trekkie-style teleportation doesn't strictly break the laws of the Universe but, short of a monumental discovery in physics, you won't be beaming anywhere in the forseeable future.