The Trouble with Transporters


In Star Trek, the transporter moves you from one spot to another, saving on shuttle fuel (and special effects budgets). In-universe, it’s ‘the safest way to travel’. Yes, *sometimes*, two guys die horrible, mutilated deaths under rare circumstances… …but trillions of individuals transport to work every morning without a hiccup. But, what if the transporter isn’t as safe as claimed… …what if the death rate isn’t point almost nothing percent, but one-hundred percent… …because the transporter is a suicide box. First, how does the transporter work? There are technical manuals, with pages and pages of hilariously over-specific details… that yet say *so little*. Star Trek is nothing if not consistently inconsistent, but, taking the most common elements: First, the transporter scans you down to the quark, takes apart your atoms and sends the pieces of you to the destination for reassembly. But, is it *you* on the other end? Or a copy that thinks it’s you? Well, who *is* you? That’s a hell of a big question, but let’s try to be good scientists about it: …we don’t assume there’s a magic part of you that can’t be measured. After all, if it can’t be measured, that means by definition it can’t affect anything. So Occam’s Razor it away and we take you as you seem to be: a collection of atoms arranged to think they’re you. And because the arrangement of atoms in post-transport you is exactly the same as pre-transport… …you must be you. Case closed. But… You might still have this nagging feeling that your experience of stepping into the transporter will be… …a funny sound, a bright light — then nothingness eternal.. …while down on the planet, a brand-new life, complete with all your memories up to the moment before your death …popped into existence and assumed it’s you… *How could it otherwise?* It lives a life as short as the mission… …and a new creature with the memories of you both makes it back to the ship. If true, multiply this by all the life forms in all the ships in all the star systems… …and this transport technology is a silent holocaust… …which makes an average episode of ‘Trek rather grim watching. And it’s a small mercy when a crew member takes the turbolift rather than site-to-site transport. But again, the measurements check out so perhaps we’re being paranoid and we’re already late for our holiday on Risa so just step inside already. But atom reassembly is the optimistic version and can’t be how the transporter really works… …because sometimes accidents combine two crew into one – or split one into two. There aren’t enough atoms in you to make a second you, so the transporter has to be turning atoms into energy and energy into atoms. You are destroyed, used to charge a battery, then recreated anew. This really seems like death. But the philosophy majors in the room are *dying* to bring up “The Ship of Theseus” now — so fine. You take this ship on an adventure. As parts get worn, you replace each until eventually no piece is original. When you return is the “Ship of Theseus” still the same “Ship of Theseus” you left on? Seems so – and this is what your body does daily via eating (bringing in new atoms) and excreting (losing atoms). Compare to the “The Cutty Sark”, a colonial tea ship burned down and restored with new parts. Is it still the same “Cutty Sark”? The result is the same: all new parts – only the time it took is different. If you’re happy “Ship of Theseus”-ing through life (as you already do), … …then getting “Cutty Sark”-ed by transport shouldn’t matter. Right…? However… step into a working transporter with a broken disassembler – and death is revealed: …pre-transport and post-transport you can disagree on who is you. And when Scotty tells pre-transport you “Sorry, the disassembler is broken, give us a minute to fix it”, you aren’t going to wait around. That a copy of you made it to the destination is no consolation. The transporter has to be a suicide box. OK, so why worry about the metaphysical implications of fictional technology? Because the transporter points us to the problem of consciousness. We were quick to cut out the idea of the unmeasurable before — because everything we can measure about the copy is identical… …but there is something unmeasurably different. The transporter forces confrontation with the possibility that there’s something about being a conscious creature that isn’t measurable from the outside. Did we not contain conscious brains ourselves, how would we know that other brains are conscious? Truth be told, you can really only know that *you* are conscious… — and it seems polite to give other people the benefit of the doubt. But were a computer to claim that it was conscious, how would you know? Your continuous stream of consciousness is your life. And you are the only one who can experience it, who can know if it *exists* and if it is continuous. And transporters are scary because they cause breaks in that consciousness. Making a copy that lives the life that you have left, with no one the wiser. With no one able to be wiser. And while transporters aren’t real, breaks in consciousness are. If you go for surgery, when they put you under, you can’t be sure if it’s you that woke up. For that matter, your bed might be a suicide machine. Every night’s slip into unconsciousness, the warm embrace of the reaper… …and every morning the first and only day of a new creature’s conscious life. It’s impossible to know. Sleep well tonight. [Music] Thanks for watching. If you enjoyed this episode’s artwork there are special wallpapers over at Patreon. So click here to get access to the Star Trek wallpapers… …and thank you for supporting the channel to help get this kind of custom artwork made. [Music] Still here? You can’t stay awake forever.

Maurice Vega

100 Responses

  1. Remember that ST:NG episode "High Ground"? It was a Starfleet propaganda piece about dimensional transportation (where the transportee steps and remains whole through a dimensional gap connecting the otherwise not connected points A and B), purporting such transportation would damage one's DNA after repeated use. Which, maybe it does, but it's the same set of atoms forming up the transportee from start to finish. So what is Starfleet's interest in ensuring people only transport by temporary disassembly? Who's holding all the market shares of Starfleet Transporter Technology (R)?

  2. this is a very interesting thought! but i would like to say that going under anesthetic would probably be a bit more similar to the transporter feel, and what i am pointing to is that during normal sleep, when you wake up there is a sense of time flow during the sleep period, but when under anesthetic you have no sense of time flow at all (this might be something personal as i'm going off personal experience having gone under more then a handfull of times)
    but then again I have not reflected on this though much since it just hit me watching this video. the sense of time flow might be from sensory input or more lack of when waking up from anesthetic.

    Just a thought and a comment on it.

  3. If I see my clone and one of us has to die, the rule is for one of us to do one thing and another to do the other. Then, one of us plays rock paper scissors and then the loser dies.

  4. I think the solution to the problem might be really simple and probably the scariest thing you've ever heard, when you think about it for some time: You only exist in this very moment.
    Your time is already over the moment it started and you just don't know, because you're already dead. What that would mean is that you haven't actually read this comment, but instead you have got the knowledge of a lot of other 'beings' reading this text which don't even exist anymore. Also you will never read this text to the end, just others thinking to be you. In consequence the ship is never the same ship at two different points in time. But that's only an idea…

    PS: Your consciousness must have a physical influence on your brain in whatever way, because otherwise, how would you think and even talk about it?

  5. I mean what if you're counciousness die every time you sleep, or you go into an extremely similar parallel universe that is almost perfectly if not perfectly identical? Does it really matter? No

  6. Lol all you people thinking theirs a you! David Hume out here. And you clearly support Negal whilst I am far more of a Smart guy

  7. I think this all hinges on his presupposition that breaks in consciousness = death, and that is not a leap that I'm inclined to make.

  8. You becoming a copy of yourself and not the original only matters if you can tell the difference. This was a plot point in The Prestige. The copy of The magician was killed each time the new one was created, but it really didn't matter (except that the old one was horribly murdered in a tank of water)

  9. I think this comes down to class and instance…
    You are not you rather you are an instance of you.
    If say you have the blue prints to the empire state building before it is build and instead of one you build two at the same time the question is – which of the two is the empire state build.
    The answer is – they both are…
    What make the empire state build is not the brick and mort as much as it's design and attributes.
    So the hard thing to come to terms with is the we are never really alive in the first place rather we are simply in motion

  10. If I'm vaporized into nonexistence, then cloned a moment later, then, as far as I'm concerned, I'm still me. Cully Sark? That's a brand new ship. Ship of Theseus? Same ship. My clone that was copied from milliseconds before my death? Cully Sark. As long as I think I'm exactly the same, that's all that matters.

  11. The issue I see with comparing a transporter vs anesthesia or sleeping is the transporter destroys the network, while surgery and sleeping doesn't. Sure individual atoms Ship of Thesus inside our brains constantly, but neurons — the network — don't (or do but very slowly), so the network is preserved through unconsciousness. Not so with teleporters. If consciousness is an aspect of the network, a teleporter would destroy and make a copy which the original network wouldn't experience (thus, couldn't ve conscious about).

  12. I was always under the impression that the "pattern buffers" were storing some continuous stream of your consciousness – perhaps virtualizing your body's electromagnetic fields in a similar way to sleep's suspension before replacing it all in the vessel – the meat and the energy all at once. This would imply that transport is actually moving the "undefinable" or "immeasurable" of the human psyche, consciousness isn't any more interrupted than sleep (which I disagree is death – your brain continues to process and think and feel, just in an altered state) and that the fears of instant death are unrealized.

  13. Sleep is a practice for death because that's all death is from the point of view of a person a slip of consciousness but forever

  14. The thing is though I can remember my past days vividly and feel that I experienced them, with the certainty that when I awake tomorrow I will be like I am now, so even if I was destroyed and a copy replaced me, why would I care?

  15. In his book The Physics of Star Trek, after explaining the difference between transporting information and transporting the actual atoms, Krauss notes that "The Star Trek writers seem never to have got it exactly clear what they want the transporter to do. Does the transporter send the atoms and the bits, or just the bits?" He notes that according to the canon definition of the transporter the former seems to be the case, but that that definition is inconsistent with a number of applications, particularly incidents, involving the transporter, which appear to involve only a transport of information, for example the way in which it splits Kirk into two versions in the episode "The Enemy Within" or the way in which Riker is similarly split in the episode "Second Chances". Krauss elaborates that: "If the transporter carries both the matter stream and the information signal, this splitting phenomenon is impossible. The number of atoms you end up with has to be the same as the number you began with. There is no possible way to replicate people in this manner. On the other hand, if only the information were beamed up, one could imagine combining it with atoms that might be stored aboard a starship and making as many copies as you wanted of an individual."

    Above quote taken from:
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transporter_%28Star_Trek%29

  16. My theory is that whenever a new "now" starts (approximately every eight seconds) our consciousness indeed dies fading out and the new one is born fading in and then… "I told you before!" Well, the other you told me. Your dead past self.

  17. I wrote a blog post on this very topic once: https://thombrown.blogspot.com/2010/09/why-i-refuse-to-use-transporter.html
    Wormholes for the win!

  18. This video reminded me of the weird existential thought I get once and a while about how I can never truly know if everyone around me is just a figment of my imagination. Or that I’m not apart of some cruel tv show or something. Idk, it’s a weird thought that scares me sometimes.

  19. I once dreamed about my death and then being in another place and time in another family being born, I died again because of something and woke up in my bed again.

    I still do not believe in anything other then the dark void in the end.

  20. I would argue the sleep thing. I mean, yes, you do go unconscious during sleep, but it's a natural unconscious. Your brain isn't fully shut off, it's resting. It's still active just not all of it. Same for if a boxer gets knocked out, sure he's on the floor, not moving, but he's still breathing and thinking, his brain was just put into an involuntary rest period. To die means there was a period your organs completely failed, including your brain. That would be where the argument of brain death comes to question. Had a nasty accident and died but got brought back to life? Well…then you could argue if you were actually you. But even then, you technically didn't die…your heart and other vital organs just failed, and your brain was still alive, just…hanging on by a thread. And it isn't until you reach full and irreversible brain death, that you are without a doubt dead, and you cannot be the same person anymore.

  21. But if the consciousness inhabiting my body dies each night, that means there are very many dead lives, so wouldn't there be a very low chance of me being conscious right now?

  22. Didn't Enterprise actually address this itself?
    (And before anyone says "ew ENT sucks," piss off, your argument is invalid because Scott Bakula)

  23. "maybe your bed is a suicide machine. … sleep well tonight."

    …and I was watching this way past midnight and planning to go to sleep afterwards.

  24. You are a conciousness created by continuous neutron firing, like a light powered by a crank, the crank stops, the light extinguishes. If the teleporter transport you without skipping a neutron beat, then you never stopped existing, but if your brain activity stopped for a few seconds then you are dead for a few seconds.

  25. There isn't a reason to think sleep is a death at least. You are still conscious during that, you're still thinking, just in a less free-willed way than you usually do. You might as well say every instant is a new being, yes you can't prove it's NOT true but I say use Occam's Razor here and say that doesn't make any sense. The continuous stream of consciousness is the best answer, so interruption in that could be an issue. General Anesthetic still has you alive, though you are purposefully hovered close to being dead, basically comatose. Even people who have "died" and been revived didn't necessarily die, as that is measured through your heart stopping which is a stupid standard. Anyone who suffers complete termination of thought, brain death, and is revived though? Yeah, that's analogous to the Star Trek transporter.

    The way I find myself concerned about that is the questions it brings up when talking about consciousness-transfer. Downloading yourself into a thing is just stupid, backups aren't actually you so that kind of Altered Carbon shit just doesn't work. The solution I came up with was brain replacement. If you replace a brain cell with an artificial one that doesn't have the decaying issues that flesh has, you should still be you. My reason for this is losing one brain cell doesn't lead to death of consciousness (presumably). So, if you could replace one then why not replace two? Ship of Theseus later, replace everything that is your brain with a new medium, WHILE the process of self is still ongoing. You could even do it while you're awake. From here it raises the question, could you teleport using this logic? Generate an identical segment of brain on one side of a room, with you standing on another. Connect your brain remotely with that one (somehow, QEDs maybe idk), turning off the corresponding segment in your existing brain. Repeat this until you are now on the other side of the room. This entire process was done while you were conscious, there wasn't a moment where you weren't there thinking as if your brain was the same as it was before. In essence, you've teleported. Star Trek transporters do not work this way, but could we theoretically make something that does? Make a protocol of data transfer that, combined with some very different computer hardware, lets your mind be mobile on a network of moving data, allowing the digital self. You never COPY yourself, and you don't move yourself like data moves on your computer (which is just a copy and delete bundle). It's like moving a program from one computer to another, without the process ever terminating. Whether this is technologically feasible I have no damn clue, but the idea seems sound.

  26. As fictional physics, since they say that it doesn't work like that, then it doesn't work like that. The opinions of philosophers on their own personal version of fictional physics are largely immaterial.

    There's episodes where transporters do absolutely crazy things like de-aging people or warping them into a whole nother universe, which goes beyond the assumption of just assembly/reassembly and into ranges of doing things that just don't make sense even by the normal standards of fictional physics, and far away from the idea of a fancy fax machine.

  27. see also, RA, THE PATH OF THE SUN GOD.
    the question raised in your video has been contemplated since ancient Egyptian times.

  28. They actually cover this issue in the prequel. The guy that invented them is on though show and talks about all the people who argued it's not the same person on the other side. He mockingly refers to them.

  29. You really just telegraphed this one in. You don't even get a telephone for this one. You missed the Shrodinger's cat proposition, you missed spooky action at a distance and the double slit experiment. Also in the Star trek universe there are beings called the Q who know if we are the same person on the other side of the transport. Also if a transporter is just an assemblage of atoms then the borg need not assimilate they could just manufacture a specialized drone.

  30. Knowing star-trek and it's post-abundance society, they wouldn't allow or accept a suicide booth- I believe it is more likely that they've mastered how to move matter from one place to another, so the device holds your conscienceness after destroying your old body, therefore your are still alive since the thing that is in perhaps laymens terms or a scientifically less accurate way: The soul, which is the building block of the mind, then clones you, then puts your consciousness into the body.
    Thus, when you fail to dissemble the body before hand it's consciousness can disagree with you because it suddenly lacked a chunk of you, like imagine if you were walking along and lost a chunk of your self, but that self proceeded to grow into it's own body. Except that part has a shard of your consciousness, thus. Since it's you 1.5 seconds in the future, or in Riker's situation: YEARS before you went down the path you did, it will come up with different situations as, we as humans tend to become different week by week slightly or dramatically as life dictates.

  31. I give others the benefit of the doubt as to their actually being conscious all the time. Still……..

    p.s. I also doubt the warmth of deaths embrace.

  32. How do we know we don’t “die” when we fall asleep and our morning consciousness aren’t copies with the same memories

  33. Being serious, I had heart surgery. I was unconscious on the table for some hours, with my heart stopped and my temperature brought very low.
    When I came around, and the long process of recovery started, I knew I was me, but I didn't FEEL like "me." I felt diminished, as if I was slightly out of body, WATCHING myself doing what I was doing. Not wholly OOB, you understand, but just a bit "zombified."
    Then, about two months later I woke up in the morning and suddenly I was "back!" That morning I truly felt like ME again… as if my personality had been restored. It was quite a big difference and not gradual at all.
    I don't know if these feelings were significant, but I understand a lot of people feel similar after deep and extended anaesthetic.

  34. "Two identical copies of the same person can disagree, therefore people must have some some unmeasurable property (in this case consciousness/identity" is a really bad argument. The two copies could disagree because they've had different subjective experiences of the world since they were duplicated. Also, they both arguing over who is the original is actually a case where there is no disagreement: they each think they are the original.

    The teleporter/duplicator isn't a valid objection to the idea that we're physical-only beings. And that only makes it more terrifying.

  35. Okay … how about you don’t rip through dozens of theories of philosophy. If this go on I will not only study a useless major but also lose the ability to act all smart around everyone else because everyone knows all of these things already :<

  36. This is a question if you need to break apart you (for copying your data) and reassemble it later. can't you clone yourself later because there is already a data of you and you don't need to break yourself again to receive the data? but from the No cloning theorem you can't make a perfect cloning?

  37. You experience the exact same consciousness you felt waking up as you did falling asleep. If I'm a copy/imposter with all the same stuff there's 0.0% difference to the original's existential experiences in the world.

  38. And now I'm going to sleep, understanding that every day is literally my last.

    And also understanding that the only safe way of teleportation is my breaking the fabric of time and space and opening a shortcut between two places instead of moving yourself really fast

  39. The soul would have to pass to the next body that appears on the end portal or the other body would die. So it's the same person piloting a new body not a duplicate.

  40. I used to know a research scientist who firmly believed that any interruption in the continuity of consciousness was effectively a form of death. I grant you, he couldn't make an objective argument as to why this was so, though.

  41. Wait, shouldn’t the Transporter be a murder box rather than a suicide box? I don’t recall it being possible to transport yourself. I thought you always, or nearly always, needed also someone else to work the slider thingies.

  42. Oh no, the disassembler broke, how terrible. I guess myself and I should go figure out what's what in our quarters. alone.

  43. This seems like a paradox, as if a break in conscious means a new being, every moment can be a break, so therefore you die and relive every moment. As we can consciously see that there's not an issue, so breaks in conscious aren't a problem, but that would mean that teleporters are okay, which we know they aren't.

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