Does Transporting Kill You?

It’s actually an old debate — in fact, it’s a variation on the Ship of Theseus — but modern day science fiction gives it a new spin. At root it’s a question about exactly where our identity as self-aware conscious beings actually resides. I don’t find it paradoxical so much as intriguing.

Recently Sabine Hossenfelder jumped into the discussion with a video asking whether Captain Kirk dies every time he uses the transporter. Not just him, of course, but everyone who uses it.

As with trees falling in forests, the answer depends on defining key terms. This case depends on exactly what we mean by “dies” and “Kirk” — the latter being the Ship of Theseus.

The Hossenfelder video caught my eye because it somehow seemed unexpected to me. (As it turns out, she was inspired by a recent survey.) I’ve posted about Star Trek transporters plenty, and the video alone didn’t inspire me to write another post on the topic. I noted it as a possible item for a Friday Notes post.

Her next video, on an unrelated topic, caught my eye even more and got me thinking about a post including both. I got as far as a bare-bones rough draft that’s been lurking in my Drafts folder waiting. It needed meat.

Today’s post on SelfAwarePatterns is about a survey conducted last year for which the results have been announced. One of the questions was:

Teletransporting (new matter):
Survival: 35.2% (555)
Death: 40.1% (631)
Other: 24.8% (390)

No doubt this is the survey Hossenfelder refers to. That’s enough synchronicity that I can’t resist doing this post. I’ve never considered transporters in terms of the Ship of Theseus question before, so that’s a new angle.

§

The framing of the question (new matter) makes it clear we’re talking about the same kind of transportation Star Trek made canonical. The local object is converted to energy after its pattern is read, and the remote object is constructed from energy using that pattern.

On Star Trek this involves a formidable question about how the construction occurs without an end station to perform it. (The David Brin parody I wrote about last post tackles and answers this vexing question.) Larry Niven wrote some stories about transporters and their social consequences, and he, along with most other authors, always have end stations. Star Trek is something of an anomaly that way. In the context of the basic transport question, we can assume an end station.

In any event, we’re destroying and re-creating the physical body. Presumably the mind comes along with it, but for dualists teleportation raises that question. If there is something ineffable about human consciousness — call it a soul for now — is it attached to the specific physical body? Will it follow to an exact duplicate?

What if we make a duplicate but don’t destroy the original? That raises a new set of questions, even when souls aren’t involved. At the least it results in duplicate copies of individuals. But these issues are not part of the main question — does transporting kill the individual?

§

Without further ado, here’s Dr. Hossenfelder’s take on the matter:

She mentions the survey. When she released it I had no idea what she was referring to. After reading Mike’s post the lightbulb went on. Ah, ha!

The only thing I’d take issue with is the apparently spontaneous appearance of receiving end stations spitting out copies of Kirk. I’d call those Boltzmann Transporters and can’t take them much more seriously than I do the Brains.

One very important aspect she mentions involves bandwidth. There’s an old saying about never underestimating the bandwidth of a station wagon full of hard drives. Physical structure carries a lot of information. The amount of data necessary to describe a human in sufficient detail is surely in the exa- or zetta-byte range.

Exactly how much information is hard to quantify since it depends on many factors: level of detail and ability to compress data chief among them.

She doesn’t mention the other major physical requirement: energy handling. Converting matter to energy involves Einstein’s famous equation, and the conversation rate is about one to 90-quadrillion. An 80-kilogram being (about 175 pounds) converts to a huge amount of energy — the equivalent of a 1.7 giga-ton explosion.

So the Enterprise, per person, is sending down a huge amount of data along nearly two giga-tons of energy. Woof.

§ §

From the beginning the matter-energy-matter nature of transportation bothered me (on many levels; it’s really problematic). See my ST: Transporters & Replicators post from 2012 for details.

Even back in high school in the late 1960s when Star Trek first aired I knew about quantum jumps. The very first original Star Trek novel that came out, Spock Must Die! (1970), by James Blish (I’ve still got my copy), had something they called a “Dirac jump” — which delighted me because that was exactly what I had in mind for the way transporters should always work.

The basic idea is an indistinguishable from magic technology that convinces the particles of an object that they’re not here… they’re there. It would leverage quantum uncertainty and tunneling in a huge way.

Magic? Duh. As magic as matter-energy-matter conversion with no end station? You decide. I don’t think so.

Jump technology solves all the nasty issues. No energy conversion; no massive energy handling. No bandwidth issues. No level of detail scanning issues. No copy issues. No end station requirement.

And no identity issues.

§ §

As to those identity issues, for me the question seems entirely definitional.

If “me” is defined as a specific persistent pattern — a 4D spacetime worm traceable back to my birth — then destroying that body definitely destroys that “me.” But since a duplicate “me” is created elsewhere, the pattern of my thoughts, ideas, dreams, hopes, and so forth, all carry on. Unless the transport fails; then I’m dead.

Unless my pattern can be stored and re-sent. (Which means copies are possible through multiple sends.) But if my pattern is corrupted or not created properly, then I’m dead. In addition to energy and bandwidth requirements, there is also a need for error correction. How many copy errors are allowed (if any)?

But ultimately what’s the difference between this form of transport and a far more real form involving a long (long) journey while you’re asleep. Long enough that all your cells get replaced by new ones (your pancreas renews on a 24-hour basis), so effectively blink and are elsewhere in a new body.

My identity is the sum total of my memories, my past. To the extent that’s malleable, so is my identity. (But I’ve never been big on identity or identity issues.)

As to the ways transporters can fail, well, car accidents happen, too.

§

I think the truly bedeviling thing about transporters is their ability to create duplicates. Even if scanning has to be destructive, once a pattern exists it can presumably be used to make multiple copies.

The notion of beaming that amount of energy is absurd. Receiving stations would surely supply their own energy, which means multiple receivers can receive the same pattern. We don’t need Boltzmann transporters for multiple copies.

That said, the notion of a duplicate “me” (or many) doesn’t depress me. If anything it excites me. It would be fascinating to meet myself.

And while I don’t believe it to be true (like, at all), I love the fantasy that other versions of myself exist in the multiverse. I’m sure a lot of them pursued careers I didn’t — like standup comedy or music or filmmaking. It’s cool to think other versions of myself did those things.

§

In the end, for any foreseeable future, teleportation of people seems fantasy, so the question is a bit silly and pointless. It won’t be an issue for a long, long time, if ever.

So my bottom line? Whatever! 😀

§ §

Here’s the other post that caught my eye:

A topic to get into in one of my QM 101 posts someday maybe. This notion of backwards causality has always bugged me, so right on Sabine!

The one thing I’ll say about this now is it’s (almost) true what Feynman said about how all the weird parts of quantum mechanics can be found in the two-slit experiment. I qualify with almost because entanglement isn’t part of that, although the other two biggies, interference and superposition, are.

I deeply believe that if we figure out interference, superposition, and entanglement, we’ll finally be on the road to figuring out QM. I think those are the key mysteries.

Stay transported, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

16 responses to “Does Transporting Kill You?

  • Wyrd Smythe

    In that David Brin comedy I mention, the transporter is an actual 200-mile long hose that’s unreeled down to the planet’s surface. The crew are bathed in solvent that breaks them down to the cellular level as a slurry that’s piped down the hose.

    At the bottom, the nozzle uses the scanning data to rebuild them cell by cell, usually with 100% success (the occasional mole goes wandering). Non-organic matter is sent down the tube in containers (like pneumatic tube systems).

    So here the cells themselves are actually sent down and reconstructed. The book mentions that the idea of transporters (as we know them) are ridiculously impossible and recognizes that a receiving station is required.

    It’s a very silly book with a lot of cleverness under the surface.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    That Ship of Theseus post from 2016 (actually titled My Grandfather’s Axe, which is the other form of the story) has become my second most popular post (that darn Santa post is finally down to #6).

    Sadly it has no chance of catching the #1 post, From the Far Side; it’s over a 1000 page hits behind. On the other hand, it’s 1500 page hits (exactly) ahead of #3, the Deflection and Projection post.

    What’s funny about the #1 post is that I used to revere Gary Larson, but I haven’t visited his new site even once yet, and I don’t feel any pull to do so. Apparently I’ve moved on. The only comic I follow anymore is xkcd. Go figure.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I remember pondering the metaphysics of the Star Trek transporter as a boy, although I had no philosophy language. The idea that Kirk died every time he went through the transporter and was resurrected at the destination, for some reason, seemed like a really cool thing to my younger self. I remember arguing with one of my friends about it, who thought my take was too weird.

    I think I remember reading (maybe in Gerrold) that the original official series bible made clear that the atoms themselves were somehow transported, apparently someone’s attempt to dodge those metaphysical implications. Of course, Star Trek has never been consistent with it, violating that assertion in the first season by duplicating Kirk into his nice and evil self. And again in TNG with Riker getting duplicated, this time with a functionally complete duplicate.

    What’s funny is that if you take into account transporters, including an ability to modify things in transport, such as the state of weapons, along with replicators, all the technology should have been there to make backups of people and restore them after they died on away missions. That the show never went there just betrays the real reason for the transporter, to quickly and cheaply get the characters into and out of situations on the show.

    I’ve read some fiction with teleporters that are something like wormholes, which does a bit better at dodging the issues. (Albeit at the cost of generating new ones.)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      For me the ‘transporter kills’ notion came much later. The original series never really explained it, so I had to decide for myself how it worked, and I really didn’t like the MEM option (matter-energy-matter). I was just getting into this weird quantum physics stuff, and tunneling sounded like a better option. (Back then pop sci texts made a really big deal about how the wavefunction has a position probability for the particle everywhere in the universe, and there is some astronomically small chance of finding it billions of light years away.)

      There were references to “annular confinement beams” — presumably to hold the atoms — but as you say there was no consistency. Michael Okuda’s official tech guide goes with MEM, which I guess makes it as canonical as anything. Yet the Relics episode (S6E4) where they find Scotty rescues him from a pattern buffer, and it’s never been clear to me what’s in that buffer. I suppose it could have been just his bits. Or maybe his actual bits.

      But, as you say, positing transporters as real opens all sorts of doors that can really mess up decent storytelling. It’s like time travel or superheroes — they allow inconsistencies that, if stories were math systems, easily allow proving 1=2. (I’m channeling Gödel here: Metaphorically, fiction is more about completeness than consistency, but good writing is as consistent as possible. It shouldn’t be obvious 1-2.)

      Wormholes could be like quantum jumps, especially if transit time doesn’t mess with SR. Heh, yes, which new issues did you have in mind? Needing magic matter to make them? 🙂 And all transporters need to worry about momentum vector changes. That was a big one in Niven’s analysis.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I read a science fiction novel decades ago that had a spaceship travel using the fact that atoms had a probability of being in alternate locations, plus some double talk on somehow manipulating it. I’m drawing a complete blank though on author or novel name, which feels like a loss because I vaguely remember it being a pretty good book. (Warned you my memory wasn’t that good.)

        The issues I had in mind involved energy requirements and the actual physics involved. A lot of what I’m thinking was really just magical tech with mumbo jumbo multi-dimensional this or that hand waving. A.E. van Vogt had people walking through teleporting gateways to various parts of a gigantic ship, but also had someone wearing a portable gateway and shoving someone through it. (Vogt never overly concerned himself with how his technology would work, but his stuff could be fun, when it wasn’t utterly weird.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        That somehow rings a vague bell, but it feels like I’ve more than once run into some notion involving translations in space. It would certainly be a cool way to travel if you could just change your coordinates somehow. I’m not here; I’m there.

        Yeah, wormholes seem to fall under the fantastic. Another interesting aspect of them is when one mouth is moving at relativistic speeds (or in a much different gravity gradient) compared to the other. You can end up with the two mouths in different times.

        I never read a lot of van Vogt, but I seem to recall some weirdness. Wiki says he was into Dianetics, plus he was active during that 1970s or so period of some very experimental writing. SF authors exploring boundaries.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        van Vogt was definitely a strange bird. I didn’t know anything about Dianetics when I read his stuff, and I think he wrote the stories I read before L. Ron Hubbard started it. But van Vogt had a preoccupation with the idea of greatness, and that some humans were just superior to others and should be in charge. He seemed to favor monarchies and dictatorships, or at least that’s the impression his writing gives.

        On the other hand, he had a pretty fertile imagination, such as an alien trying to do the equivalent of purring, but with the effect being toxic to humans, or gadgets doing all kinds of bizarre things like resurrecting dead people. All of this back in the 40s and 50s. Maybe you have to be a strange bird to come up with the ideas he did.

  • Brian

    Whilst reading this idea that anyone that uses such a transporter device dies I considered the prevalence of claims of near death experiences (NDE). A transporter device takes a few moments to complete the process (I’m sure that’s stated more specifically somewhere in various episodes of Star Trek or one of the movies) and therefore in a shorter period of time than a typical NDE, or the time that the soul (if there is one) takes to leave the body (I also postulate that the body connects to the soul, and therefore would reconnect to it when the body is ‘put back together’… perhaps the ‘soul’ is part of the body and therefore gets transported in the process).

    • Wyrd Smythe

      So, if I follow, you’re saying that, assuming the soul doesn’t get transported, the time it takes to transport (which we’ve seen many times) gives the soul a chance to re-attach to the body at the other end? Certainly a workable idea. We just posit that the soul “recognizes” the body across time and space (or across space anyway) and rushes to be rejoined with it.

      In fact, that Lindsay Ellis book I just reviewed talks about the “noumenal” dimensions beyond our perception and which connect all points in space. These noumenal dimensions are, in fact, accessible only emotionally and mentally.

      But what if we use the transporter to make a duplicate? 😈

      • Brian

        Yes, well, I have read of suggestions that our soul attaches to our body at birth (or conception). Indeed, my feeling is that it is of another dimension so isn’t of this physical one that we consciously perceive.

        The duplication idea is certainly an interesting one. Did this ever get put forward in Star Trek itself? I would consider the topic of twins who claim they can ‘feel’ things that affect the other, or the concept of ‘soul mates’, and how we are perhaps each the ‘essence’ of one ‘god soul’; the soul of the universe. I don’t know where all these souls are coming from as the human population on this planet explodes, that itself is a form of duplication.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It’s possible 3D space is emergent and not as limiting from other points of view as it is from ours. Quantum entanglement seems to suggest a connection that transcends space, which suggests space might not be what we think it is. Our physical 3D reality is limited, but maybe our minds aren’t. Certainly it’s true that, in our thoughts, we can be instantly anywhere or anywhen, for whatever that might mean.

        The old Star Trek had an episode where a transporter malfunction splits Kirk into his “good” and “bad” selves. There’s a TNG episode with two copies of Riker, also, as I recall. They’ve always been very inconsistent with technology. (The show is framed as hard SF, but it’s more that it’s just dressed up that way.)

        A lot depends on what one decides a soul is. If it’s just a product of our minds, duplicates don’t seem a problem; they have minds, too. If it’s a reflection of God’s Mind, imagine it as a mirror reflecting God’s Light. One mirror or millions can reflect the same light. Regardless, that new people are born constantly (about 350,000 per day) — and assuming they all have souls — then clearly souls, whatever they are, can be created.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Transporting may not kill me, but my Wi-Fi problems sure might. 😡🤬🤯

    • Wyrd Smythe

      They’ve gotten as bad as they did before. The laptop won’t stay online for more than a few minutes. Or it’s fine all day. I have no idea what’s going on, and it’s making me crazy.

      I’m gonna have to get this thing serviced. 😦

  • Paul Torek

    I don’t think teletransporting kills anyone, in any useful sense of “kill”, even if the person is duplicated. Although I wouldn’t like being duplicated unless my wife can be duplicated too. Spoiler alert! (going to the link will spoil the episode of a show that is sci fi but not Star Trek).

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, short of a transporter accident that actually does end your 4D spacetime worm, “kill” just doesn’t seem to be what’s happening. As I mentioned, it’s just a much faster version of what happens over time anyway — we move around and our tiny bits are replaced.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Thought for the day:

    Humans are 96.2% CHON: Carbon (18.5%) Hydrogen (9.5%), Oxygen (65.0%), Nitrogen (3.2%).

    Which means we are 77.7% just gas.

    And some carbon.

    [see: Composition of the human body]

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