Those Transporter Beams Star Trek Promised

An article in the Guardian newspaper asks whether we’re ever going to get those transporter beams Star Trek promised us, or the transmat system that’s Doctor Who’s less-well-exposited equivalent.

In short, will technology ever be able to take a person from one place, convert them into data, transmit them, possibly even at faster-than-light speeds, and then reassemble them at the other end?

The original matter-transportation system we know and love from Star Trek was, in the end, nothing more than a plot device. Keen to avoid the expense and complexity of having to show the crew being shuttled down to planet surfaces – or of threatening the viewer’s suspension of disbelief by omitting any scene involving such a shuttle system – the show’s creators decided instead to allow the characters to “beam down”. It was quick, cut out extraneous travelling time, got us straight to the action – and it could be done with a comparatively cheap special effect.

An animated image from a recent Star Trek film, showing crew members arriving on board ship by transporter, with a sparkly special effect.
Although the effects didn’t necessarily stay cheap.

Only later did transporter technology really get thought about. Only later did we learn that you had to stand still whilst being beamed – except when you didn’t. Only later did we learn that standard Starfleet transporters have a maximum range of 40,000 km, and that you couldn’t beam through shields (the latter seeming fairly self-evident now, at least to Trek fans, but only because we already know it’s a rule).

And it was only later on that we learned that transporters could go wrong. Badly wrong. Aside the universe-swapping shenanigans of the classic episode “Mirror, Mirror”, the first Star Trek movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, featured a short early scene with what, for me, still rates as some of the straight-out darkest dialogue ever spoken in Trek, as a transporter system fails in the midst of beaming two crew members aboard the Enterprise:

[Kirk and transporter officer Rand fight to correct the faulty signal. The two travellers appear briefly on the pads, in obvious agony, before vanishing.]

KIRK (grimly): “Starfleet, do you have them?”

STARFLEET: “Enterprise… What we got back… didn’t live long. Fortunately.”

Oof.

But generally speaking, every form of transport comes with some risk, and for the most part the transporter system is shown to be safe and reliable. In 2016’s Star Trek Beyond, as we’re introduced to the implausibly gigantic, Death Star-dwarfing Starbase Yorktown, we see people stepping into and out of street-corner transporter booths, showing for the first time that transporters are in routine public use as well as getting Starfleet bods about the place.

So could we ever see such a scenario? Could all our futuristic self-driving cars be consigned to history as we all just zap around our lives, distance no object? Could we one day commute via such booths, stepping out of our front doors in Glasgow and arriving seconds later at our workplace in Phnom Penh before nipping out for a quick lunch with friends in Irkutsk?

Putting aside the various conniptions that nationalists would go into at the thought of people just blipping across their precious borders as readily as radio signals, is it possible?

Quite possibly. By my limited understanding, it seems most of the biggest problems are engineering ones: can you build a computer fast enough for the calculations? Can you build memory storage big enough and fast enough to handle the 2.6×10⁴² bits of information your quantum profile would take up, according to the article?

(There’s also the little matter of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle – the apparent physical law that means you can’t fully know where any given quantum particle is and where it’s going. In Star Trek this is done away with by a mysterious, little-discussed transporter component called the “Heisenberg Compensator”, and I intend here to handwave uncertainty away in the same manner.)

So sure: it’s possible that science and engineering might come up with something.

But we couldn’t use it.

Even if the system was there; even if, theoretically, it worked; even if we’d used it on mice and they were clearly absolutely fine… we still couldn’t use it on people. Not ethically, anyway. We couldn’t even – ethically speaking – test it on someone to make sure it worked, and we certainly, absolutely could not make it publicly available for mass transportation.

At the moment, we have no idea exactly what “people” are. That may change in the future – possibly – but as things stand we have no idea what it is that makes people alive and self-aware. Religious people might sum up the property in question with the word “soul” – but whatever our individual beliefs, a human is possessed of a certain Something that not only makes us living, thinking, remembering, feeling creatures, but makes us aware of ourselves as such.

At least, I assume people are possessed of this quality. I know I am – but I admit I’ve only got reasoned assumption to tell me that others are as well. I assume that, because I experience this self-awareness, so others who appear to be otherwise like me – that is, Human – have their own equivalent sense. But I can only assume it: there’s no way I can know it; there’s no device that can test it for me. It’s an entirely personal, individual experience. And vice-versa: there’s no way that you, reading this, can know for sure that I experience a self-awareness similar to the one you (I assume) possess.

This is at the heart of an idea called solipsism: the viewpoint that we can only be certain of the existence of our own self as a truly sentient being, and that, from a strictly sceptical point of view, we needn’t assume the individual reality of any other apparent ‘self’ than ourselves.

For the budding transporter traveller, the problem is that we don’t know whether that quality of self, whatever it is, will survive the transport process. We don’t know whether what the person who arrives at the other end will actually be us, with the same, continuous sense of self, or an entirely different person who merely thinks he or she is us, and who appears to share our own memories: someone whose “self” only came into being at the moment of materialisation.

The Guardian article does touch on this (as do countless other blogs posts and articles far better than mine), but surprisingly briefly given its central importance to the question:

Even then, would you not be transmitting a copy? What happens to the you at point x when you at point y appears? Will original you be zapped? If so, who in their right mind would test this wondrous machine?

Are we, to put it bluntly, transporting ourselves from A to B, or are we simply creating a perfect, indistinguishable copy that sincerely believes it’s us? And if the latter, what happens to the original? What happens to the real us? Where do we go? Presumably, the same place as anyone subjected to sufficient energy to break down atomic bonds so hard that nothing at all is left.

An animated image from an episode of Star Trek showing a man being struck by a phaser discharge and completely vaporised.
Not a good place, to be honest.

When Captain Kirk is beamed from place to place, only Kirk himself goes through the subjective experience. Only Kirk knows whether he lives or dies (though if the latter he may only be briefly aware of it). No-one else can be sure. Even if they ask the arrival if he’s really Kirk, he’ll say yes – because as far as he’s concerned, he is. He remembers growing up in Iowa, joining Starfleet, meeting Bones and Spock. He knows how he feels about his friends, his crew, his work. He knows everything about himself. But he doesn’t know if he shares the same awareness, the same sense of self, as the Kirk who departed on the journey. And that Kirk’s gone, so we can’t ask him.

In other words, even if technology comes up with the means to beam someone from here to there, or back, we could not ethically use the machine. There’s a very real possibility that we could be killing the traveller and replacing them with a perfect duplicate – and while there’s an equal chance we might not, we have no way to test which is the case. We have no way to know, even after we’ve used it, that a transporter isn’t, or hasn’t been, lethal to the user.

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