Introduction to How Teleportation Will Work

Sick of those frenzied morning school drop-offs? Longing for a morning commute free of highway road rage and public transit bum stink?

Well, lucky for you, science is working on an answer, and it might just be as simple as scanning your body down to the subatomic level, annihilating all your favorite parts at point A and then sending all the scanned data to point B, where a computer builds you back up from nothing in a fraction of a second.

Sure, it kind of amounts to chunking your kid in a subatomic wood chipper every morning, but just think of all the time you'll save!

It's called teleportation, and you probably know it best from the likes of "Star Trek" and "The Fly." If realized for humans, this amazing technology would make it possible to travel vast distances without physically crossing the space between. Global transportation will become instantaneous, and interplanetary travel will literally become one small step for man.

Doubtful? Consider for a moment that teleportation hasn't been strictly sci-fi since 1993. That year, the concept moved from the realm of impossible fancy to theoretical reality. Physicist Charles Bennett and a team of IBM researchers confirmed that quantum teleportation was possible, but only if the original object being teleported was destroyed. Why? The act of scanning disrupts the original such that the copy becomes the only surviving original.

This revelation, first announced by Bennett at an annual meeting of the American Physical Society in March 1993, was followed by a report on his findings in the March 29, 1993, issue of Physical Review Letters. Since that time, experiments using photons have proven that quantum teleportation is, in fact, possible.

The work continues today, as researchers combine elements of telecommunications, transportation and quantum physics in astounding ways.

Teleportation: Recent Experiments

Teleportation experiments cause quite the mess in science fiction, producing inside-out baboons, gene-spliced monsters and dematerialized madmen like nobody's business.

In reality, however, the experiments are thus far abomination-free and overall quite promising.

In 1998, physicists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), along with two European groups, made IBM's teleportation theory a reality by successfully teleporting a photon -- a particle of energy that carries light.

The Caltech team read the atomic structure of a photon, sent this information across 3.28 feet (about 1 meter) of coaxial cable and created a replica of the photon on the other side. As predicted, the original photon no longer existed once the replica appeared.

In order to carry out the experiment, the Caltech group had to skirt a little something called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. As any boxed, quantum-state feline will tell you, this principle states that you cannot simultaneously know the location and the momentum of a particle. It's also the main barrier for teleportation of objects larger than a photon.

But if you can't know the position of a particle, then how can you engage in a bit of quantum teleportation? In order to teleport a photon without violating the Heisenberg Principle, the Caltech physicists used a phenomenon known as entanglement. In entanglement, you need at least three photons to achieve quantum teleportation:

  1. Photon A: The photon to be teleported
  2. Photon B: The transporting photon
  3. Photon C: The photon that is entangled with photon B

If researchers tried to look too closely at photon A without entanglement, they'd bump it, and thereby change it. By entangling photons B and C, researchers can extract some information about photon A, and the remaining information would pass on to B by way of entanglement, and then on to photon C. When researchers apply the information from photon A to photon C, they create an exact replica of photon A. However, photon A no longer exists as it did before the information was sent to photon C.

In other words, when Captain Kirk beams down to an alien planet, an analysis of his atomic structure passes through the transporter room to his desired location, where it builds a Kirk replica. Meanwhile, the original dematerializes.

Since 1998, scientists haven't quite worked their way up to teleporting baboons, as teleporting living matter is infinitely tricky. Still, their progress is quite impressive. In 2002, researchers at the Australian National University successfully teleported a laser beam, and in 2006, a team at Denmark's Niels Bohr Institute teleported information stored in a laser beam into a cloud of atoms about 1.6 feet (half a meter) away.

"It is one step further because for the first time it involves teleportation between light and matter, two different objects," explained team leader Dr. Eugene Polzik. "One is the carrier of information and the other one is the storage medium" [source: CBC].

In 2012, researchers at the University of Science and Technology of China made a new teleportation record. They teleported a photon 60.3 miles (97 kilometers), 50.3 miles (81 kilometers) farther than the previous record [source: Slezak]. Just two years later, European physicists were able to teleport quantum information through an ordinary optical fiber used for telecommunications [source: Emerging Technology from the arXiv].

Given these advancements, you can see how quantum teleportation will affect the world of quantum computing far before it helps your morning commute time. These experiments are important in developing networks that can distribute quantum information at transmission rates far faster than today's most powerful computers.

It all comes down to moving information from point A to point B. But will humans ever make that quantum jaunt as well?

Seth Brundle, Jeff Goldblum’s character in “The Fly” reminds us just how messy the whole teleportation business can be.

20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

Human Teleportation

Sadly, the transporters of "Star Trek" and the telepods of "The Fly" are not only a far-future possibility, but also perhaps a physical impossibility.

After all, a transporter that enables a person to travel instantaneously to another location might also require that person's information to travel at the speed of light -- and that's a big no-no according to Einstein's theory of special relativity.

Also, for a person to teleport, the teleporter's computer would have to pinpoint and analyze all of the 1028 atoms that make up the human body. That's more than a trillion trillion atoms. This wonder machine would then have to send the information to another location, where another amazing machine would reconstruct the person's body with exact precision.

How much room for error would there be? Forget your fears of splicing DNA with a housefly, because if your molecules reconstituted even a millimeter out of place, you'd "arrive" at your destination with severe neurological or physiological damage.

And the definition of "arrive" would certainly be a point of contention. The transported individual wouldn't actually "arrive" anywhere. The whole process would work far more like a fax machine -- a duplicate of the person would emerge at the receiving end, but what would happen to the original? What do YOU do with your originals after each fax?

It stands to reason, then, that every successful bio-digital teleportation would be an act of murder and creation. Each use would see the digitalization of your body's every detail, the creation of a genetic clone complete with all the travelers' memories, emotions, hopes and dreams.

The original copy would have to die; that is, unless we're cool with the notion of duplicating ourselves every time we need to travel cross-country and committing infanticide each time little Jimmy heads to school.

As with all technologies, scientists will surely continue to improve upon the underlying concepts of teleportation. One day, such a harsh vision of life, death and teleportation may well seem barbaric and uninformed. Our ancestors may feel their bodies fade and dematerialize on one world, even as their eyes open on a planet untold light-years away.

Explore the links on the next page to learn even more about quantum physics and teleportation.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Teleportation Will Work

Teleportation is one of those "Frankenstein" technologies that terrify us even as they inspire us. Surely, the power to travel instantaneously from New York to Bangkok or from Earth to Alpha Centauri is certainly a power worth grasping after. It could ultimately guarantee the survival of the human race and its peripheral technologies could change fundamentally what it is to be human.

After all, if a machine can digitize everything that's you and rebuild it on the other side of the planet, then why bother with a perfect copy? How about an enhanced copy that's younger, smarter, stronger and happier? Why should you ever worry with getting old when you can simply pass through the teleporter and emerge renewed?

Bio-digital teleportation tempts and haunts us. It's why so many of our sci-fi visions of it involve inherent tragedy and dehumanizing horror. Because if we ever achieve it, we'll have mastered life, death, matter, space and time. Surely, some barrier should stand between humanity and such godhood, right? –- Robert Lamb

Related HowStuffWorks ArticlesSources
  • Emerging Technology From the arXiv. “Quantum Internet: First Teleportation to a Solid-state Quantum Memory.” Feb. 3, 2014. (March 4, 2014) http://www.technologyreview.com/view/524186/quantum-internet-first-teleportation-to-a-solid-state-quantum-memory/
  • "First quantum teleportation between light and matter." Phys.Org. Oct. 5, 2006. (March 5, 2014) http://phys.org/news79265847.html
  • IBM Research. "Quantum Teleportation." IBM. 1995. (Oct. 30, 2012) http://researcher.watson.ibm.com/researcher/view_project.php?id=2862
  • Scientists teleport light to matter for 1st time." CBC News. Oct. 5, 2006. (March 5, 2014) http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2006/10/05/tech-teleport-061005.html
  • Slezak, Michael. "Teleportation record heralds secure global network." New Scientist. May 15, 2012. (March 3, 2014) http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21811-teleportation-record-heralds-secure-global-network.html