Last week, YouTube educator and entertainer CGP Grey released a video about the profound philosophical issues posed by the Star Trek transporter, and it brought into question the idea of breaks in consciousness; i.e. if your flame—your consciousness—goes out completely, can it be reignited at another place and time and still be considered “you”?
During the video, Grey makes the bold claim that Star Trek transporters must essentially be “suicide boxes,” because they destroy your original consciousness (and mind, body, etc.) at point A in order to make the new copy of you at point B. And while it may seem implausible, according to MinutePhysics (who also provides tons of fun and insightful scientific lessons on YouTube), that’s the only way a transporter could ever work. And that’s because of the very Star Trek-sounding “no-cloning theorem,” which has nothing to do with the concept of biological cloning, but is actually a law of quantum teleportation.
Quantum teleportation—a feat that has already been achieved experimentally “with various material systems such as atoms, ions, electrons and superconducting circuits”—is, as MinutePhysics points out, “[a way of taking] some particles in a particular arrangement and [transferring] their exact quantum condition onto other particles arbitrarily far away.”
The only problem with quantum teleportation however, aside from the fact that it requires already entangled particles to occur (great video on the whole quantum teleportation process here), is that, as MinutePhysics again points out, “it is impossible to create an identical copy of a quantum state without destroying the original…[because] you have to destroy the original arrangement in order to extract all the necessary information from it to construct the new teleported state.” This means that it would be impossible to create two yous with the Trek transporter; if you were transported using quantum teleportation, there’s no way an original “copy” of you would remain at point A, as it would necessarily be destroyed to create the new “copy” at point B.
MinutePhysics’ video also brings the Ship of Theseus vs. Cutty Sark issue into focus. If the only way a Star Trek transporter can work is by copying the exact position of all your particles onto duplicate particles somewhere else, would that duplication of original states onto new particles still be you?
If only Data or La Forge were here explain this all to us. It wouldn’t make any more sense, but it would sound so easy!
What do you think about MinutePhysics’ video on the Trek transporter and quantum teleportation? Beam your thoughts into the comments section below!