Into the Teleport, To Be Two

We know how this one works, don’t we? It’s just like in Star Trek: into the device, smashed into a glitter-whorl smithereens of atoms, and then fired off into the cosmos to be reconstituted (sans boiling water) at a different exotic location.

I liked the Blake’s 7 version even better. The teleport onboard the Liberator whipped the crew into a frenzy of wavy lines, before de-wavy-lining them (always to the sound of the same pompous orchestral sting) – soldering-guns in hand – at some decidedly non-exotic location (in real life, usually a disused quarry in Dunstable).

Problems. Outside of science fiction, this kind of teleportation is impossible – yes, even at the quantum scale. The much-vaunted real-world technique of quantum teleportation works so differently that it would probably have been better to call it something else.

A new film (rumoured to be in the early stages of production and to star Casey Affleck) may help to negate the instant-packet-soup misconception of teleportation. If done correctly, it might negate a lot more. To Be Two, based upon the Paul Broks short story ‘To Be Two or Not To Be’, from his book Into the Silent Land (2003), fronts up to an important part of the reality of teleportation devices – that they ‘teleport’ nothing, they only duplicate and (usually) destroy.

Broks’ story is based (closely) upon a seminal thought experiment by the philosopher Derek Parfit, published in his book Reason and Persons in 1984. Parfit posits a device that allows a person stepping into it to be ‘teletransported’ to Mars. To the casual observer, the device works just like the Star Trek or Blake’s 7 ones. It is only when the machine malfunctions that the true mode of operation becomes clear. This time, instead of immediately destroying the ‘original’ on Earth once the person has been scanned (at the atomic level), the Earth-based machine leaves the person alive and a ‘copy’ comes into existence on Mars, created by a decoder/builder machine there. (Note that the decoder/builder on Mars uses local atoms; no transportation required.)

I will come to some of the philosophical implications shortly, but first I will clarify what I meant when I stated that quantum teleportation devices ‘teleport’ nothing. In Anton Zeilinger’s book Dance of the Photons, we learn about real experiments in teleportation of light (photons). Zeilinger’s locational characters, Alice (A) and Bob (B), explain what is actually going on. It’s hard to follow. Essentially, though, Zeilinger is dealing with quantum entanglement – the ‘spooky action at a distance’ that bothered Einstein so much.

An entangled pair (EPR) of quantum bits (qubits) is created. One from the pair is sent to location A, the other to location B. A measurement is performed at location A on the EPR qubit there and on the photon to be ‘teleported’; both quantum bits are destroyed in the process, but two classical bits result. A classical channel, limited by the speed of light, is used to communicate this information from location A to location B, where it is used to manipulate the quantum state of the remaining EPR qubit to match the state of the original, pre-entanglement photon. This photon is now an exact copy of the original.

Putting the science of quantum teleportation to one side, we can now turn to Parfit’s thought experiment. As may be obvious, it is really about personal identity: which of the two versions – the ‘original’ on Earth or the ‘copy’ on Mars – would be you? When I wrote about this in my blog a few years ago, I got it wrong. I had read about Parfit’s example out of context, and so had not understood its true implications. I concentrated too much on the gradual divergence of personality between the two versions, mistakenly thinking that this was telling me something about their initial relationship to each other.

Now that I have read – and felt my life changed by – Reasons and Persons, I understand the thought experiment. It’s a shocker. Parfit wrote it to further his agenda of jolting us into the realisation that personal identity is not what matters – only psychological continuity and connectedness count. The question, ‘Will I still be me after teleportation?’ is empty. It does not matter if the original you ceases to exist. It does not even matter all that much if ‘you’, as the ‘original’, survive for another few hours or days before dying. Our instincts scream at us that this must be important; that we would be stuck on Earth facing imminent death while the copy on Mars lived our life and continued our relationships. Instincts, I’m afraid, sometimes scream in error.

To peel away another layer, Parfit is talking about our relationship to ourselves: how is my current self related to my past self? Well, you already know the answer to that question – there are certain continuities and connections between yourself as you are now and yourself as you were then. But that is all. There is no kind of Cartesian pure ego connecting your various phases/iterations. If there were such a thing, then surely – were you to be teleport-accident replicated – it would have stay with either the version on Earth or the version on Mars. How would it know where to go? What could it be anyway?

You may take comfort from the fact that quantum teleportation will not result in the kind of scenario that To Be Two will portray. How, for example, could we ever create an EPR pair of humans with all their trillions upon trillions of atoms? We would be talking about putting whole persons into a quantum superposition. We would be superimposing an identity onto the until-then indeterminate ‘twin’ that ends up at point B. ‘Obviously,’ as Zeilinger points out, ‘we are talking a lot of nonsense for any person with a reasonable mind.’

I choose, instead, to take comfort from that fact that a different kind of teleportation already works – the kind that ‘transports’ me to each waking morning, apparently with my identity still intact; the kind that duplicates my thoughts and memories from conscious moment to conscious moment, with no noticeable gaps in between.

Being destroyed and replicated is, as Parfit points out, about as good as ordinary survival. And ordinary survival, believe it or not, is ‘about as bad as being destroyed and Replicated.’


D.J. is a futurist thinker and writer, and is signed up with Alcor for cryonic preservation. He lives in, and works from, a modern house overlooking the sea on the coast of the Isle of Skye, in the Highlands of Scotland.

See more of D.J.’s writing at and
Twitter @extravolution

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