Could Teleporting Ever Work?

Illustration: Benjamin Currie (Gizmodo)

Have the major airlines spent decades suppressing teleportation research? Have a number of renowned scientists in the field of teleportation studies disappeared under mysterious circumstances? Is there a cork board at the FBI linking Delta Airlines, shady foreign security firms, and dozens of murdered research professors? Is that investigation being suppressed internally by an agent with close personal ties to Delta’s CEO?

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No. None of that is the case. Which begs the question: why doesn’t teleportation exist yet? It kind of seems like it should, right? For this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of experts to find out why teleportation is not yet a thing—and whether it ever could be.


Steven Olmschenk

Associate Professor, Astronomy/Physics, Denison University

One method that has been suggested to accomplish this uses quantum teleportation… but such a feat would be an enormous challenge, and would look very different than the typical sci-fi implementation. Quantum teleportation—using the features of quantum physics to teleport information stored in quantum mechanical systems—is a real phenomenon that has been demonstrated by experiments on small scales, like pairs of trapped atoms, and has important applications in quantum information and quantum computing. Using quantum teleportation could, in principle, allow for all the information about larger objects (perhaps even at the scale of a person) to be teleported to another location. However, there are some major caveats…

First, the amount of information needed to completely describe a person is staggering (and most likely already nixes this notion): there are more than 10^27 atoms in the average person, each with a position, interactions with other atoms, etc. Second, quantum teleportation only transmits the information, not the atoms themselves, which means you’d need a bunch of atoms at the receiving end to reconstruct the person (and, of course, some way to controllably assemble all these atoms). Third, the quantum teleportation protocol destroys the information at the transmitting end (ouch?). And finally, since the protocol requires some regular (classical) communication to properly decode the information received through quantum teleportation, all this transfer is limited to be less than the speed of light. So, quantum teleportation probably will not ever be used to teleport humans. While it may not be strictly prohibited, it would be very, very hard… and perhaps very messy.

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Warwick Bowen

Professor, Physics, University of Queensland

I think it would be extremely, extremely challenging.

I was part of one of the first teams to develop quantum teleportation, some seventeen years ago now. There have been countless demonstrations of teleportation since, and most of them have been focused on using teleportation for quantum technologies, quantum computing particularly.

One of the aspects of quantum technology that has been slow to progress is teleporting increasingly complex systems. Typically, the teleportation experiments involve one or two degrees of freedom of an object—say, the polarization of a photon of light, or the spin of an atom.

But human beings have around 10^27 atoms in our body, and each of those atoms has many degrees of freedom, so there’s a massive technological challenge here. How do you go from teleporting objects that have a few degrees of freedom to teleporting objects that have as many as a human being? I’d say that if quantum teleportation was required for every single degree of freedom in every atom in the human body—then it’s just never going to happen.

But do you actually need to teleport in a quantum way? You can 3D print an object—you could imagine just having a really sophisticated conventional 3D-printing type technique, or biological cloning growth technique, to teleport your leg. The question then is: what parts of the body are really crucial to teleport in a quantum way? I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that question yet, but there’s a lot of speculation about where quantum mechanics plays a role in the body. Mostly these are questions of the brain—i.e., is quantum mechanics required to understand things like consciousness? I think a lot of people would be sympathetic to that view—that there’s something quite unique and interesting about consciousness that may be different than just building an object out of Lego.

So then you could ask yourself: what would it involve to teleport your brain, as opposed to your whole body? Well, there are a hundred billion neurons in the brain, so that sounds like a pretty challenging task. It looks hard to me. But it may be that there are only a few very, very special degrees of freedom in your brain that carry any quantumness in the human, and it may be that then you could build a teleporter that was able to teleport those degrees of freedom without disturbing them, and then build up the rest of everything that maybe doesn’t matter for your personality and your consciousness using more conventional methods. But I think we’re very, very, very far from it, because we don’t even know if there is anything quantum going on in the brain. That’s a really big question. At the moment, it seems a very very high mountain to climb.

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Patricia Rankin

Professor, Physics, University of Colorado

Much as I would like to be able to use a teleporter to travel right now the answer is no!

Let’s start with what can be done—you can start out with a system of two quantum entangled atoms, separate them, and make measurements on one atom that affect the measurements made on the other atom. This is sometimes described at teleporting information because the atoms can be separated quite a distance and you can think about what is going on as a transfer of information from the local atom to the remote one. A human body that weighs about 100lbs contains about 4 ½ billion, billion, billion atoms (4.5 x 10 27 atoms). Even if you tried to replicate all the atoms in a person and build an exact duplicate of them you could not do so because you would need to know precisely the type and location of every atom in that body at some point in time as well as how all of those atoms where moving at that instant of measurement. However, you cannot know both the position and velocity of an atom exactly at the same time because of something called The Uncertainty Principle. So, you are not going to be able to quantum entangle two exactly identical people and this type of teleportation is off the table.

What most people (well, anyone who watches Star Trek) thinks of as teleportation though, is less about the transfer of information and more about dissembling a body in one location and re-assembling it in another. You are converting matter to energy and back again. We convert matter to energy in nuclear reactors and energy to matter in particle accelerators. What we cannot do is ensure that when we convert energy to matter that we make a particular type of atom much less that we make several different types of atoms arranged in a particular structure. Here again we will hit fundamental limits because we cannot re-assemble, for example, a red blood cell in a precise location moving in exactly the same way as before because of the Uncertainty Principle.

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Jacqui Romero

Professor, Physics, University of Queensland, Australia, whose research focuses on quantum science

In quantum teleportation, the “quantum state” or the particle that holds the information does not physically move, rather the information is transferred to another particle that is at a different location. In the process, the original particle is “destroyed.” However, the “new” one is indistinguishable from the original one (if the original were still around!) so in that sense you have indeed “recreated” the original quantum state at another location.

Is this Star Trek teleportation? I don’t think it’s exactly that, Captain Kirk would have to be destroyed many times and recreated using classical communication (easy enough!) and some “blank person”—entangled with the original Captain Kirk—in another location. Is Star Trek teleportation possible? I don’t think there is a law that prevents it...

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