Sunday, April 21, 2013

Troubles with Transporters

The “transporter” is a widely-known piece of Star Trek technology. For the uninitiated, essentially the device grabs hold of you (stepping on the transporter deck is optional but is somehow helpful, perhaps in reducing the amount of energy required) and converts you into a beam of energy. The beam of energy goes a certain distance (the distance is limited to tens of thousands of kilometers) and spontaneously reassembles the person that underwent the process into his or her original state.

Maybe for another post I’ll talk about how teleportation could perhaps conceivably work…but for now, let’s just assume the system really does work as the shows and movies portray it working…I gotta say though that I would under no circumstances be comfortable with my body being converted into a beam of energy and being reassembled elsewhere…what about signal interference? I don’t know how the beam moves or what form of energy it consists of (Star Trek isn’t clear about that), but whatever it uses has to share frequencies with something else, energy of the same kind in the universe…which means you could get interference of some sort…which would not give a pleasant outcome at reassembly-after-the-beam-reaches-its-target…Star Trek actually plays with this possibility from time to time, but not realistically enough in my humble opinion…

But Star Trek commits larger gaps of logic, failing to bring out points that really should come up in stories featuring transporters. Consider this, if you really can convert a person into a beam of energy…if you really can take every piece of matter and convert it into data (which watching enough Star Trek makes clear is what happens), why couldn’t you just retain a backup copy of the data, in case you lose somebody on the next away mission? Redshirt Martin dies on planet Xray, but when you get back to the ship, you reassemble a new one of him from the stored data of his last transport…or perhaps from his detailed physical last year. Of course, that person would not retain any memories of what had happened between the last backup and his untimely death, but you could always bring him up to speed…in this the transporter could function rather like a saving your game in a realistic 3D game…except the “game” would be reality.

Though if you could bring people back—let’s assume for a minute that whatever a person’s soul consists of can be captured as data—I imagine the soul might be something you could capture, but I’m not sure (and am not inclined to take the chance it wouldn’t be captured—again, I wouldn’t want to take a trip anywhere by transporter)—but if you really could bring back someone 100% the same, wouldn’t people start to treat real life like a game? I mean wouldn’t they begin to take huge risks they otherwise would not take? After all, they’d only be the push of a button away from coming back to life in an earlier version of yourself if something went wrong…

And there are lots of other logical problems with the transporter system. Say your transport distance limit is 50,000 kilometers…why not move the signal by relay? In radio this happens all the time—it’s very common to rebroadcast a signal received from elsewhere. So if you wanted to go from the Earth to the Moon, a series of satellites in orbit and in Lagrangian points could rebroadcast you through repeaters all the way there without you even knowing you’d passed through them (you’d need seven of them). Granted, the number of repeaters would become ridiculous at interstellar distances, but there would be no compelling reason why you wouldn’t be able to get around at least the inner Solar System by transporter alone.

Star Trek talks about a transporter signal degrading after a short time, preventing some of what I’m talking about here, but never logically gives a reason for why it would degrade. In fact, my hunch is that keeping the data secure and unchanging is something we would find a whole lot easier to do than to accurately gather the data in the first place (see Heisenberg compensators under the "capabilities and limitations" section of a Wikipedia article on Transporters). So if you could store the signal at will, why take the entire crew with you in physical form? Why not store some of them as data and assemble them when you need them? You could do that at least with specialized crew members, such as, say, an expert in Romulan genetic studies—or you could pull out of memory an entire battalion of security officers if the ship were being overrun. Or for long duration missions, even the entire crew could go into data storage…the computer could bring them back out when needed. It certainly would save you money on building holodecks to keep the crew entertained…

And if you can store data without error—something our early 21st century technology does quite well—why couldn’t you manipulate the data, something we are also pretty good at now (not to mention what we should be able to do several hundred years in the future)? So you could isolate the part of the data that contains a patient’s arm, say…so if security officer Martin only loses an arm to an alien disrupter, instead of completely rebooting him you could simply beam just his arm from his last transport recording onto the rest of his body…as good as before, no need to perform surgery (though he might need to get his new I LOVE MOM tattoo redone…).

Manipulation of transporter data would in fact logically affect all medicine. Someone is sick with an alien bug? Beam the germs out of her body—or beam her away and back, but don’t beam the germs back. Any kind of injury? Beam in unaffected body parts. In fact, there might be quite an industry in deliberately manipulating the transport data to make you younger…or taller…or to change your gender or race or really any physical thing about you. Say goodbye to weight loss clinics!

And again, if it were actually doable to convert a person into data…hey, digital data is easy to duplicate. A transporter could be used as a personnel copy machine…if James T. Kirk is your best battlefield commander, make enough copies of him to run every warship in the fleet…but don’t let them in the same room together—not that universe would explode in some sort of paradox—but the egos, the egos…Dear Lord!

Star Trek fails to tap into all of these logical outshoots of the technology they propose—so fan fiction in the Star Trek universe straightjackets a writer into these constraints applied without a compelling reason. However, writers inclined to create similar universes with a similar devices, called a “teleporter” or some such, should feel free to make their technology do things Star Trek never imagined…

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