Monday, December 02, 2013

Is Star Trek Technology Achievable?

This is one of my favourite debates I've had on, although the voters decided that I lost the debate.  It's not exactly religious, but I do think there are metaphysical implications that are relevant to Christianity.  I'm just posting this one for fun.  We argued specifically about transporter technology.  Here is my opening statement:

Thank you for coming to tonight's debate. A couple of people have already expressed interest in the debate, which I hope means we'll get a good voter turn out. I will try to do my part to keep it interesting.

Before we talk about whether Star trek transporter technology is achievable, we first need to talk about what they do.

1. They are able to send groups of people at the same time to remote locations and back.

2. They work by recording all the information about the person, disintegrating them, sending their parts along with the recorded information to a remote location, and reassembling them from the information and the original parts.

3. They are able to send people through solid walls.

Star Trek transporters unachievable for at least three reasons:

I. Disintegration and assembly problem

Transporters already exist. Cars, transport whole humans, in groups, to remote locations and back without disentigrating them. But in Star Trek, people must be sent through barriers at very high speeds. A whole human cannot pass through walls or survive traveling through space without a breathing apparatus, so they must be disassembled.

But how much? It won't do to cut their arms and legs off and ship them to Dr. Frankenstein who puts them back together. Nor will it do to break them down at the molecular level since cells cannot pass through walls. Breaking them down to the molecular level won't do because molecules cannot travel through barriers like we see on Star Trek. Breaking the molecules down to atoms won't work either because atoms cannot pass through walls unless they are porous enough, and space ship walls need to be air tight. Subatomic particles also have trouble penetrating barriers. Protons and electrons can just barely penetrate skin. Neutrons have great penetration power, but not enough. Three feet of water, by itself, is enough to attenuate most neutrons. But for our transporter to work, we need all of the neutrons in our body to pass through all the barriers. We can't have even a fraction of them attenuated if we want to reassemble the whole person.

We're going to have to break the subatomic particles into something more basic. We're going to have to convert the mass into energy, preferably in the form of electromagnetic radiation.

But that creates an insurmountable problem. The amount of energy contained in the mass of one human is enormous. A person weighing 160 lbs on earth has a mass of about 72 kg, which is equivalent to 1.5 x 10^3 megatons of TNT.[1] The most powerful nuclear bomb ever detonated only released 100 megatons of TNT.[2]

Things are further complicated when we have to reassemble the parts because we have to convert electromagnetic radiation into subatomic particles, such as protons, then fuse those protons into nuclei. It would require an insurmountable amount of energy to perform anything like that.

II. The recording problem

The information required to record everything about a person is prohibitive. There are about 60 to 90 trillion cells in the human body.[3] Each cell is extremely complex, containing thousands of proteins in different arrangements.[4] Each protein is made of long chains of amino acids. The shortest known protein is 20 amino acids long.[5] DNA is made of roughly 3 billion base pairs[6] ordered in a unique sequence in each person.

The brain presents a problem all its own. The brain has about 200 billion cells and about 125 trillion synapses, which is more than all the switches in all the computers on earth combined.[7] To preserve the person, all of the information in the brain must be accurately recorded and transmitted. If anything is missing, it could affect a person's cognitive functions, including their memories, personality, and bodily functions.

All of this information would have to be recorded by some type of computer with more switches than there are atoms in the human body because it's not enough to record each atom. The exact location of each atom must also be recorded relative to every other atom as well as all the chemical bonds between atoms. And there are about 7 x 10^27 atoms in a 70 kg body.[8]

We don't have the technology to build a computer that could process that much information. There is a limit to how powerful computers can be and how small recording devices can be. The smallest possible computer is a quantum computer that can store qubits of information on single atoms. Nothing smaller than that will work because of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Quantum computers suffer from stability problems, though, and it's questionable whether they can ever be made to be reliable.

Another problem is how to collect and process the information from the body and transmit it to the computer's storage device, which I'll go into more detail about later if I can.

The two factors I have mentioned so far make Star Trek transportation unachievable by mortals, but the next factor makes Star Trek transportation unachievable even by immortals.

III. The problem of identity

Before our Star Trek transporter works as it ought, we must be able to transport the person himself and not just create a replica. The problem with Star Trek type transporters as that they kill a person by disassembling them and use their old parts to create a new person who happens to be just like the one who died.

Let me use a thought experiment to illustrate.[9] Let's say you build a card house, and you accidentally and knock it over. But you had hoped to show it off, so you decided to rebuild it. And such is your memory, that you are able to rebuild it exactly like it was before with each card in its original position. If so, then this second card house would not be the original. You've just used the same cards to build another card house just like the one before.

If you're unconvinced, suppose that instead of you, somebody else knocks it over while you're not around. Then they use those same cards to build a card house exactly like the one you built. Surely the one they built isn't the same one you built even though they're made of the same cards and even though it looks the same. It doesn't matter who does the building. If the new card house is not the original card house when somebody else builds it, then it's not the original when you build it either.

In the same way, if a transporter disintegrates you, then your parts are used along with your recorded information to build a new person with those same parts, then it is not the original person. It's a duplicate.


My opponent explained some of the research in tele transportation, but none of them overcomes the problems I've raised. The article inThe Independent explains how information was transported using quantum entanglement. No substance was transmitted. The Chinese were only able to create a replication, not a transportation. The only article my opponent cited that might give us hope is the last one where solid matter was transported. But if you read the article, the 100 atoms were not actually transported. Rather, there were two collections of atoms 0.5 meters apart, and the "excitation, or spin wave state" of one collection was transmitted to the other collection by means of photons. None of these experiments are relevant to Star Trek transporters.









[9] Lest somebody accuse me of plagiarism, I am copying this from a discussion I had on a message board, but this is my original work.


At 12/04/2013 6:12 AM , Blogger Slacktide said...

cool post I've always wondered about this :)


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