The implications of teleportation

22 01 2013

When preparing to interview at my current company, I googled “interesting interview questions” and one that I came across was, “what would happen in the short and long term for society if teleportation were discovered?”  I randomly remembered this (because a friend posted an article by a blogger exploring the implications of self driving cars, so not too random), and though it would be fun to explore because I feel I won’t fall asleep for a while.

This question, much like zombies, cannot be explored without setting some ground rules.  For example, if people could teleport like in Jumper, the implications short and long term are simple: widespread crime and the death of the human race or the breaking of the human race into groups of familial/communal groups.  So since that would be no fun to explore as a positive technology, let’s make some assumptions:

  • Teleportation requires a pad to send and receive, meaning things must physically be placed on them.
  • Teleportation requires a small but finite time to accomplish.
  • Teleportation pads have traceable transactions, meaning using them for crime would require great ingenuity.
  • Teleportation obeys the speed of light limit, required or a discussion of the physics becomes too abstract.

Now this is a decently defined and explorable situation (wow I’m such an engineer).  Thinking a bit further, there is another major assumption which we must make before exploring the idea.

  • Teleportation costs some amount of electricity.  Based on the cost, the implications will be far different.  At a cost of pennies we could look at interstellar travel, amazon becoming 99% of the economy etc.  At the energy cost of a nuclear bomb, the implications are much more different.  For fun let’s assume it costs about the amount of energy to light a light bulb for 1 hour to transport any item which fits on the pad anywhere in the universe.  Spacetime is complicated, so let’s just assume the universe operates only under newton’s principles.

Already we can see  I must make numerous assumptions to define the problem and have a meaningful discussion of the subject, and each assumption I make cuts down on the implications or at least alters them.

So in the short term, cars will become completely useless except for racing and transportation from transporter pads to local areas or vice versa.  Every industry will be affected.  Amazon can deliver things to your house, so can a farmer.  Wars will be completely different because personnel can be moved instantly and the logistics of supplying an army will be completely different.  An inability to block transporter pads will mean the entire world burns as one country sends military through pads in enemy countries, so let’s assume transporters have some sort of screening.

But then, when thinking of war, we must think if there is a size limit to teleportation, for transprorting a man or a tank will surely change the implications for war.  And while addressing the idea of size, we must address mass.  Doesn’t mass decrease as a body increases toward the speed of light or something?  Anyway, there are many short term implications, but I am getting tired so let’s move to some long term.

Space travel will be revolutionized.  Imagine sending a probe with a transporter to other planets, and able to send personnel and equipment.  Astronauts could sleep at home.  Probes could be sent to other solar systems, as fuel could be transported to them mid flight to increase their speed close to the speed of light.  Althogh the implications of magically adding mass to a space ship again, mess with the physics of the situation.

If you transport something to a transporter pad, does it have the same velocity as the pad it came from or the pad it transported to.  If you sent something to a space ship and it wasn’t going the same exact velocity as the landing pad, it would basically be a bullet.  Even on Earth that would be true as the Earth is moving relative to the sun as well as the center of the universe.  So eventually the implications get too bogged down in the science and the only meaningful implication would require teleportation to be so well defined that it would be pointless, because as developing the rules for teleporation you would shape the interpretation.  It is similar to imagining an alternate universe.  With nothing concrete, assumptions must be made which will undoubtedly shape the interpretation.  So the most important takeaway, Mr. Interviewer, is that I understand one of the key points of engineering: check your assumptions.



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