Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Beam Me Up to Heaven?

Greetings, friends.

You've heard a lot about risk evaluation so far from me, like why drinking a 2L bottle of soda is millions of times more dangerous than getting your head blown off while twisting the pressurized cap. Today I'm going to tackle an interesting problem in (soon-to-be-)practical philosophy: the ethics of teleportation. If I've done my job right, at the end of this post you will either fear death and teleportation, just teleportation, or neither of them.

What is Teleportation?

First, let me be specific as to what I mean by teleportation. The (now) hypothetical teleportation machine I'm going to talk about would work like this. You walk into a room, and your body is deconstructed while it's scanned, such that the position and composition of every molecule in you body is recorded. (I think that a fair amount of lossy compression would still have the subject live on the other side. Imagine a world with different transport ticket classes: First Class teleportation introducing relatively little distortion by using a full Yottabyte to store your body's information, but Coach using less bandwidth but leaving you feeling not quite right - like a low-bitrate MP3.) On the other side of the world, or years in the future (if you trust the data medium you're recorded on) your body is reconstructed, and you walk away fresh as a daisy.

Teleportation vs. Death

Here's the catch. How confident are you that walking into a room and getting taken apart molecule-by-molecule would feel any better because a suitable (even a perfect) copy of you walks out the door of a machine somewhere else? Suppose other people start teleporting and claim they didn't feel a thing wrong. Is that really any consolation? A perfect copy of my friend would behave just like a friend that didn't feel anything wrong. But how do I know that my actual friend didn't just subjectively die in the scanning room?

Most of my friends consider my reluctance about teleporting a little on the quirky side. They use it as evidence that I believe in a soul, which wouldn't get passed on to the copy stepping out of the teleport receiver. Even some of my friends who declare to believe in souls wouldn't mind being teleported as long as people did it all the time without any obvious side effects. (Maybe that makes sense. If souls don't have physical locations, why would it matter if the physical location of the block of matter "in contact with" the soul were to change locations?) Still, I think that getting my molecules ripped apart would feel pretty much the same regardless of the quality of the clone of me which stepped out into another time and place.

Death as Teleportation

"All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice [....]"
-- John Donne, Meditation XVII
"Soon, some by teleportation. The 'better language' has me in Costa Rica right now."
-- Me

If you agree with pretty much everyone I've talked to, you'd say I'd be kooky to eschew teleportation because of its potential metaphysical consequences. If so, you shouldn't be afraid of dying either. Here's why: parallel universes are very likely. Check out the Wikipedia entry on "scientific" multiverses. There are tons of reasons to think that the sum total of reality is much bigger than the observable universe. Here are some reasons to suspect "reality" has more than what we could ever possibly observe:

  1. Space is big. We don't really know how big it is - but if it's at least 10^10^29 units big (What really kills me is that when you do orders of magnitude of orders of magnitude, the "units" could be 1 femptometer or 13.7 billion light years, and it wouldn't make a difference to the "29" part! If you use units 10^80 times bigger, you'd change the exponent from 10^29 to (10^29) + 80: insignificant.), then it's likely that there's an exact copy of you somewhere out there, given the number of possible arrangements of atoms in a universe 13.7 billion light-years across (which is all you can see at this point, so the seperate universes would be effectively identical). Because of quantum fluctuations these universes would diverge, but if space is at least 10^10^29 big, there would always be some universe out there identical to ours in every way.
  2. Baby universes might exist. If universes typically aren't that big, you might still have copies. Some physicists think that some universes constantly spawn children universes (here "universe" means contiguous volume of space), resulting in an exponential growth in the total possibilities explored by reality. In this case, you're guaranteed to have an exponentially-increasing number of exact copies of yourself elsewhere. You might not be able to reach these copies even in principal, but they would still exist.
  3. The "Many-Worlds" interpretation of Quantum Mechanics might be correct. You might have heard that making a measurement of a particle changes that particle in a fundamental way. Quantum computers are hard to make because to make a big one, you have to carefully avoid measuring anything while the computations are running. In this case, "measuring" doesn't mean "recording the measurement," it just means letting some information about the quantum computer's state influence the outside world. But, what counts as "outside" and "inside"? Nature doesn't draw a boundary around the quantum computational mechanism, saying "OK, you particles can interact with all particles in the quantum computer, but as soon as you interact with those particles in the computer case, the show's over." If you assume there's only one reality, you have to conclude that there's something special about our minds that collapses possibilities: whenever information about the state of a quantum computer leaks out into the world which could potentially be observed by a mind, the quantum possibilities collapse, and you're left with a classically-behaving system. (Alternatively, some physicists propose that large enough quantum systems spontaneously de-cohere with no mind needed, but it's not clear how "large enough" should be so defined yet. Every experiment done so far has the definition of "large enough" coincide exactly with "big enough to contain a mind.") If you find it hard to swallow that the atoms making up your mind have special "waveform-collapsing" powers, an appealing alternative is the "many worlds" interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, which suggests that possibilities never collapse, they just multiply. In this case, reality always branches whenever a particle makes a quantum decision. Reality always branches so that what you observe is consistent with the branch you took, which is why it appears that you collapse possibilities through observation: you're just forced to go along with a single outcome. So, if a particle in a superposition state decides to be spin-up or spin-down and you interact with it, you will be split into two and exist in two different non-interacting worlds: one where you observed the particle to be spin-down and one spin-up. Since quantum interactions happen all the time, the "many" in "many worlds" in like the "big" in "big bang": a serious understatement. There are so many exact copies of you floating around, it's ridiculous.
Personally, I think reasons #1 and #2 are possibilities we shouldn't discount, and that #3 is really quite likely. How about you guys?

Copies and Immortality
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
--John Donne, Holy Sonnet X

It's extremely likely that not only do perfect copies of you exist somewhere, but also that every reasonable permutation of matter exists, including ones where you have e.g. different social status. If you're not squeamish about teleportation and you bought my arguments about the plurality of possible existences, then you have to believe that even if "Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men" disassemble you as thoroughly as a teleporter scanner would, "One short sleepe past" you'd wake in a reality where everything was the same, except some ridiculous circumstance would conspire to make you actually survive.

If the "many worlds" theory is correct, you wouldn't even have to be physically transported to another place as part of the immortality process. Check out the thought behind quantum immortality if you're interested in more on this.

Practical Issue: Subjectivity/Objectivity Mismatch

I'm more skeptical about my subjectivity being transported with my copy than I am about the plurality of the universe. Luckily, if multiverse #3 holds, I don't have to worry about the teleporter/subjectivity problem at all.

As long as the "many worlds" idea is correct, I think I'd be able to experimentally verify my reluctance to teleport myself, but only subjectively. That's because if I tried to teleport myself, no matter how hard I tried, my subjectivity would be forced down the quantum branches in the universe into realities where I wasn't able to be destructively scanned due to a freak occurrence. This will happed subjectively to everyone, but all of your friends will be able to teleport just fine from your point of view, just like it's possible for your friends to die in your world even though you might subjectively be immortal.

You May Be the Only Person Who Cannot Teleport in the Future
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
-- Rudyard Kipling, If -

Therefore, let me warn every one of you: there's a chance we're living in a multiverse where nobody will ever be able to teleport subjectively, because every time they try their subjectivity will be forced down some bizarre path where they didn't actually get killed. If you find yourself unable to teleport in the future even after having teleported many times before, it will mean "you" were born a clone from a teleportation machine, and your subjectivity won't be able to fit through a teleportation machine any more easily than a teleportation virgin's.


Be prepared for a future where all your friends can teleport without issues, but you are never able to. Be prepared for finding that teleportation doesn't work for you even if it has in the past: this just means your subjectivity started when you stepped out of a teleport receiver.

In either case, you will have evidence of the "many worlds" interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, but you'll never be able to objectively prove it. My advice: keep quiet about it, or they'll think you're crazy. Maybe if you turn Amish you'll be able to hide your existential conundrum.

I'll give a closing note to financial houses. I'm interested in buying a "solipsism fund:" a financial instrument where lots of us (like, millions of us) pay into a pot, and the people surviving split the interest on this cash every year they live. If we are all subjectively immortal, there's no better investment. And no, I don't want a fixed stipend for the rest of my life - I want to be filthy rich if I have to live to be as old as the Wandering Jew. PS - please keep the recipient list anonymous until only I am left, so that others don't have an incentive to do away with me early.

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