Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Transporter question

Here is a question that I find thought-provoking and a little troubling.

Imagine that someone invents a teleportation device, sort of like the ones they use on Star Trek. This transporter can “beam” you over long distances, and do it cheaply, so that anyone can put a dollar in a slot, step onto the transporter pad, and in a fraction of a second they’ll materialize at a chosen destination. Lunch in Madrid, dinner in Tokyo, a play and dessert in London.

But here’s the catch: The technology works by totally vaporizing you with lasers, which analyze you down to the molecule and record the information. The data is beamed at the speed of light to the destination, where a machine takes the data and rebuilds you from a storage tank of material, duplicating you exactly, down to the molecule. The process takes a tiny fraction of a second.

In essence, one machine kills you, and another machine builds a duplicate that is in every identical to the one that was vaporized.

Would you use this transportation technology?

People who know me well know that I’m a pretty hard-core materialist. I consider the “self” to be the sum of our material being. Our experiences, thoughts, and emotions arise from our physical bodies. As such, it seems to me that the “self” would be unchanged by being destroyed and then immediately rebuilt. If I am derived from my physical makeup and experiences, then “I” am not really destroyed, I am just swapping old molecules for new ones.

But I can’t get past the fact that the first machine kills you. I don’t know if I could bring myself to use such a machine.

How many of the atoms in my body were there a year ago, or ten years ago? Would the transporter simply speed up the rate of turnover? If there is a soul, would it leap to the new body?


  1. I'm teleporting this idea to you right now via the internet. Is it the same idea in your head as it was in my head?

    In a related get-rich-quick-scheme, I plan to charge my ideas one dollar for access to internet teleportation.

  2. Playing with magnets, one dollar every.

  3. Thought re: self (which you allude to):

    Are we different selves every time we (i.e., our molecules) occupy a different part/moment of space-time? If so, then the lasers have no noteworthy effect on our selves because we're constantly different anyway. Perhaps self-consciousness is a useful adaptive mental feature that helped our ancestors survive in the social environments they were creating long ago. Or not even an adaptive feature, just a by-product of other mental features (like attributing agency to things that happen or developing "theories of mind" about what other people are thinking).

  4. Yes, that's exactly how I would have said it if I were you.

    I think there would be less difference between the teleported selves than between a self that had been flicked in the nose and one who hadn't.

    I was thinking on my drive into work this morning: Any trepidation I had could easily be overcome by money. Pay a dollar for it? Well...But pay mea few dollars for it? Sign me up!


I'm eager to hear your thoughts!