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The Trouble With Star Trek Transporters

Being a Trekkie for many years, I'm used to the cyclical fictional debates of whether a Klingon Bird-of-Prey would handedly defeat a Romulan Warbird. Don't even get me started on Kirk versus Picard. But The Nerdist's "Because Science" YouTube segment asks an interesting question: if you teleport somewhere, are you technically the same person on the other side?

The question isn't really one of science but one of philosophy as Nerdist's Kyle Hill explains:

The transporter problem of identity is something we've been wrestling with for thousands of years. Greek historian Plutarch illustrated this problem with what he called The Ship of Theseus. It goes a little something like this. Theseus, the captain, likes to have his ship in tip-top perfect shape. When one plank rots away, it is replaced with another, perfectly good plank. Most would say this is the same ship, but what if all the ships planks are systematically replaced?

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This systematic replacement of planks, or in our case cells, is exactly how transporter beams are theorized in Star Trek. As Hill points out, humans also replace almost all of our cells in a period of 7 to 10 years. Even if we're not physically the same down to our cells, do we still remain technically the same person. Most would say yes, and but there is really no right answer. Just another sci-fi question that blows your mind if you try to think about it too hard.

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[The Nerdist]

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DISCUSSION

None of us are the same person *by that relation* as we were when we were born. We're constantly replacing cells throughout our lives. And as far as Star Trek is concerned, their transporter system is a bit *different*. The trek transporter - as described by the technical manual and Mr. Scott's Guide, does not use local material to rebuild the pattern. Your matter is converted to energy, transmitted, then that same energy is converted back to matter at the destination. By converting it to another form and maintaining the pattern - the "information" never changes. And when we talk about information in quantum physics, we mean the attributes that define a unique thing. Converting matter to energy then back to matter does not create a *new* thing if the same pattern exists after the transformation as did before. In other words, you are still you. And its pretty well defined in Trek's canon that this is how a transporter works.

Now lets take the case of Duplicate Riker - where in order to get him back to the ship they used the ship's power and pumped that energy into his pattern by using two transporter beams on the same target. The pattern that made it back to the ship was Riker. The pattern that got bounced back to the planet was Riker. They were both equally Riker, although depending on which one recieved more of the non-source energy, one was more Riker than the other... and that could have easily been the Riker that made it back to the ship. But there's no way to tell... because the pattern that reformed their energy contained the same information and that replayed energy was indistinguishable from the original.

Furthermore, as a legal and societal standard, we should recognize that a person is their thoughts as much or even more so than their bodies. It's quite likely our exploration of the universe will involve either cloning or transference of consciousness. Even if we develop FTL ships and FTL communications, it might be vastly more economical to simply assemble a body with the same pattern as the original from raw materials at the destination and send a copy of the consciousness there while keeping the original active here. If communications cost less resources than energy, and real-time communications can be sustained, then having multiple bodies might become just like having multiple appendages. And how many you have might be only limited to how many different instances of yourself you can psychologically handle being aware of. And even if you don't consciously direct all of them at the same time, you could leave enough of yourself in each one that the end result is the same. And they just sync up together.

Its certainly a way to achieve immortality with no great or special measures needed to be taken. Although it would require an AI capable network of computers so that human consciousness could exist in a virtual world while directing their nodes to their various tasks and coordinating the experiences from all those existences at the same time. :) Still, that idea represents a society that would be utterly alien to our current one. Because at that point, property wouldn't belong to a "body" it would belong to the consciousness. And thus, if a consciousness was seperated long enough, how do you deal with its rights to the collective's property. Although that would be a very small problem. Because if we have the resources to create such nodes, we also have the resources to provide copies of the property and material to the nodes.