Don't Beam Me Up


April 26, 1993|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

Washington. -- No scientific advance has yet been permanently stopped by wholesale agreement that it spells too much trouble to let happen.

But now, on the distant horizon of physics, there's a candidate that screams for scientific infanticide:

Teleportation, a standard science-fiction prop that's amazingly gestating toward reality, distant though it may be.

Opponents will be scorned and ridiculed as Luddites, fearful of technological advance. Nonsense.

Teleportation? In an extremely primitive form, it's foreshadowed by the fax machine, which starts with a piece of paper and delivers a copy from point A to point B via telephone lines or radio waves. But compared to teleportation, faxing is kid's stuff, engineering 101, a technological piece of cake.

In its advanced form, teleportation will transmit people from point A to point B. The operational details haven't yet been worked out. But the first everyday system will probably consist of telephone-style booths, in which travelers will punch in their destinations.

Then, whoosh, they instantly emerge at the other end, perhaps thousands of miles from the starting point, maybe a bit dazzled, but neither weary nor rumpled by their electronic passage.

The technology will then evolve to home-based and office systems and then the pocket teleporter. And, of course, teleporting will not be limited to people. Goods will move by wire, too.

Initially, teleportation might be a novelty confined to rich individuals or businesses. But, as with computers and cellular phones, a mass market is assured by the ever-sinking costs of electronic technology.

As improbable as it seems, teleportation is already being discussed in the serious, humorless literature of basic scientific research.

The theoretical underpinnings were addressed recently in Physical Review Letters, the most selective chronicler of developments on the frontiers of physics. An echo soon followed in Nature, a prestigious journal that surveys the world of science.

''The idea behind teleportation,'' explains Nature, ''is that a physical object is equivalent to the information needed to construct it; the object can therefore be transported by transmitting the information along any conventional channel of telecommunication, the receiver using the information to reconstruct the object.''

But the wizardry conceals menaces whose potential won't be known until it's too late to cram the genie back in the bottle.

If today's pace of technological change is psychologically unsettling, how will the world cope with millions of electronic travelers coming and going at lightning speeds? The telephone, with all its blessings, is also an intrusive nuisance, even with devices to screen unwanted calls. Will teleporting lead to new vistas in trespassing?

Teleporting is also rich in potential for mischief and malice. No serious practical joker could afford to be without it. Vengeful lovers would find it attractive as a means of disposal. For kidnappers, it opens a variety of possibilities. It's hard to beat as a getaway technique from a crime scene.

Leaving the kids at home with a teleportation instrument on the premises poses unsettling prospects. The wrong-number problem screams for a fail-safe solution.

The disruptive power of teleportation is so colossal that its potential impact can barely be glimpsed at this stage. But experience shows that faster is not always better, and that clever new technologies are not necessarily desirable.

Luddites, unite, before it's too late.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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