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No.12 Beam Us Up. For real.

September 16, 2009
by Nathanael Johnson
characters from Star Trek using teleportation

Quantum teleportation

The big idea: When scientists demonstrated that teleportation was possible in practice as well as theory, pop science writers immediately began musing about human transporters. Technology forecaster Paul Saffo also started thinking. “It’s like when [Berkeley professor Charles] Townes invented the laser,” he says. “Everyone thought it was going to turn into a ray gun.”

But Saffo’s mind turned instead to telecommunication—more specifically quantum teleportation, that could cut Internet transmission times effectively to zero. Before that happens though, Saffo says cryptographers will make use of this technology. When you teleport a piece of information it doesn’t move from one place to another through the air or a wire, it simply disappears and reappears at its destination—which means that no one can intercept it.

If you are unfamiliar with quantum teleportation magic, here’s an easy, do-it-yourself recipe: Take two particles (photons will do) and carefully entangle them—let’s imagine for simplicity’s sake that laboratory-strength whisking takes place. (Physicists have been doing it for years.) Once entangled, the particles have a sort of psychic connection. Bump one and the other will jostle—any change in the state of the one leads to a parallel and simultaneous change in the other.

Now the neat thing about these entangled particles is that this magic persists even after they have been separated. And in theory, even after they have been moved light-years apart. That means you can send information across great distances nearly instantaneously. So if you’ve been unhappy with the speed at which your computer is downloading movies, this could be good for you. Set up a computer to translate a quark’s spin into a few bits of information, and you’re moving data faster than light.

What’s next: Scientists have plenty of problems to solve here: How do you get the entangled particles distributed to the right spots? How do you do it in a way that’s affordable? And finally, how do you control a photon to the degree that it could transfer information like these keystrokes? In other words, how do you catch a sunbeam in your hand?

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