Physics students from the University of Leicester have calculated the time and energy required to beam a complete person from the Earth’s surface to a location in space. Their results were discouraging, to say the least.
Teleportation, or beaming, has long been a staple of science fiction. As anyone who’s seen Star Trek or The Fly knows, teleportation describes a hypothetical mode of near-instantaneous transportation in which matter is dematerialized at one place and reconsructed at another. The particular scheme that’s often employed in scifi is what’s called “destructive copying,” meaning that a source person is scanned and copied down to the molecular level and then reconstituted at a secondary location.
Neverminding the fact that this sort of teleportation strategy would serve as a veritable suicide machine (the source person would be destroyed during the copying procedure, as evidenced in the TNG episode, “Second Chances” when an ‘extra’ Riker was accidently created), the energy and bandwidth required to pull off such a feat would be astronomical. What’s more, due to the sensitivity of the transfer, the potential for catastrophic accidents would be significant.
Indeed, as the new study published by fourth year students at Leicester’s Department of Physics and Astronomy makes painfully clear, it would take a hideously long amount of time to transmit all this information to a source location.
For their analysis, the students assumed that a person would be beamed from the surface of the Earth to a location in orbit directly above it. Their first task was to figure out how much data constitutes a person — which is easier said than done. This is an area of great contention as we’re not entirely sure what level of granularity is required to capture a person's complete essence. Is is the cellular level? Molecular? Atomic? Indeed, would we be the ‘same’ person if even a few atoms in the brain were out of place?
The students settled on the idea that transferable data could be represented by the DNA pairs that make up genomes in each cell. Each human cell was calculated to contain about 10 billion bits of information. They also assumed that each cell contains enough information to replicate any other type of cell in the body. After calculating the amount of information encapsulated in a typical human brain, the total data content was shown to be 2.6x1042 bits. That’s a big number — one that looks like this when it’s expressed fully:
Now, the trick is to transfer all that information — and quickly. In Star Trek, it takes about two to three seconds. But in reality, it would take considerably more. Assuming a bandwidth rate of about 29 to 30 GHz (a somewhat conservative figure based on current technologies), it would take 4.85x1015 years.
That’s 350,000 times longer than the current age of the Universe!
Part of the problem is that bandwidth is contingent on the availability of energy; a decrease in time creates an increase in power consumption. We simply don't have the power to transfer information at faster throughputs.
“Therefore, quick and energetically cheap teleportation is beyond the capability of current data transmission techniques,” conclude the authors in the study.
‘Current data transmission techniques’ being the key phrase, here.
In future, we may be able to increase throughput considerably by devising more powerful energy sources, and/or by transmitting the data along multiple parallel streams (like a data torrent).
We could also employ data compression schemes to limit the amount of information that has to be transferred. For example, we could limit transfers to neural information only; a cyborg body could await the traveller at the destination, which would in turn produce all the bio-chemicals required for normal cognitive function (e.g. neurotransmitters).
So, yes — teleportation is certainly implausible by today’s standards — but it’s still not beyond the realm of theoretic possibility.
Of course, none of this solves the 'suicide machine' problem — but that's a personal choice...
Check out the entire study at the Journal of Physics Special Topics.