Solving the transporter’s problem

Image of a transporter from Star Trek™ (Copyright by Ex Astris Scientia 2013)

Image of a transporter from Star Trek™ (Copyright by Ex Astris Scientia 2013)

One of the biggest problem with creating an actual transporter is data, too much of it. I have heard a lot of stories about how much data it would take to send a human flying from one end of the world to another is miliseconds. Anything from hard drives stacked from here to the moon up to hard drives stacked from here to the centre of the galaxy (I’m guessing the latter was quite a while back). In order to send the data anywhere fast you’d need a data stream of over a metre wide. Not much in our world, gigantic in data streaming terms.

Luckily we can decrease this stream in a number of ways. First you could use smaller wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum (e.g. use X-rays instead of ultraviolet light). trouble is that small wavelengths do not travel through optic fibres, you’d need dedicated satellites to send the data to another transporter. Also small wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum damage living tissue so you wouldn’t want planes flying trough it for instance.

Instead of going to smaller wavelengths you could also increase the carrying capacity of optic fibres. A new technology promising to do this is a technology that twist the beam of light into a vortex this enables you to send more signals at once through the cable. This allows for a speed currently clocked at 2,5 terabits per second  (your internet connection is measured in megabits per second, which is a million times less then terabits). It’s so fast you could stream an entire blue-ray film in a fraction of a second. Actually you could stream about 7 in that second.

There is, however, another way to decrease the data you need to send. Just send less. When physicists talk about a transporter they want to send information about every atom in your body to the other side of the world so you get an exact copy of yourself where you want to go. It would however be smarter to only send the most important information and let the computer extrapolate the rest. We’d want our brains to be scanned very precisely because the connections brain cells make are vital to make you who you are. other parts are less important (e.g. the exact place of a certain blood cell in the body which changes constantly.)

When we start looking at the biochemistry in cells we see that we all share a lot of molecules among all humans. From the relative position of molecules we can even deduce their current state (active or not). So instead of transmitting that you have a protein containing iron 4 nitrogen atoms carbon atoms etc. and their relative place you just transmit haemoglobin whether it is carrying oxygen and it’s orientation in the cell. The computer on the other end will just make a haemoglobin molecule, a huge saving in data. Especially if you consider that we are full of standard proteins. Even if they aren’t it isn’t a problem. A more basic building block of the protein is the amino acid. So you can just send the amino acid sequence and orientation, still a time saver. Same goes for DNA which basically can be described by four letters A T G C a string of these letters is basically enough for a computer to know how to sequence the entire DNA in your body. orientation and nearby proteins give an indication if the DNA is being copied, at rest or curled up ready for cell division.

If we would send data in this manner we could save a lot of bandwidth making it possible to actually transfer the data to another transporter in a second and without a metre wide beam. Downside would be that on a cellular level you wouldn’t be exactly the same. Some proteins might be in a slightly different place then in your original body but you wouldn’t know the difference or be able to tell the difference without an immediate scan on a molecular level.

It might sound crazy to do this. It is however a trick we have learned from our own brain. A brain, when compared to a computer, is extremely energy efficient (it burns about 25W/h) and yet has functions no computer can replicate (conscience for instance). It does this by hard-wiring basic assumptions into our brain. We are, for instance very adept at recognizing faces. So adept even that we recognize two symbols, :), as a smiling face. We are even so good at recognizing faces that we can’t even see what side of a mask is the front and what side the back. By using this and many more short cuts the brain can use it’s relatively limited resources more effectively, devote more resources to more pressing matters.

It could even be a breakthrough in medicine. Missing an arm? just deduce how it should look from the DNA and the bodies proportions and you’re ready to go. Rare genetic disease? Filter out faulty genes and proteins and replace them with good ones. Got HIV? Just filter out the Virus’s  RNA. It could even be used to prevent ageing! Every ER might be equipped with a transporter to fix any medical emergency you sustain. There might not even be anything beyond the ER.

The holodeck: Neural interface

In the last few weeks I have examined a few technologies that could function like a holodeck. Today I’ll examine the potential of the neural interface a hypothetical matrix-style technology.

A neural interface is a device that links directly to and interacts with your brain. Werther via a direct connection like in The Matrix or via a non-invasive method, the neural interface promises to be the ultimate holodeck experience even if it seems a little scary as well.

for a realistic holodeck experience you’d need three things. The first is that the computer understands what the hell you are trying to do. That your brains signal for turning left is actually translated into a left turning movement. with a tried and tested method like EEG this can be done today even if it is a little rudimentary and not quite exact. Luckily the brain can adapt and learn and increase efficiency of EEG based controllers (the brain waves the machine reads become more distinct when using it regularly.

Though EEG has been able to give us basic control of computers they are limited. The EEG only reads general brainwaves but does not have the resolution required for the fine motor control you’d need to play a first person shooter for instance. A better bet might be a fMRI. The fMRI measures the blood flow to the brain. The more blood flows to a certain part the more active it is. The fMRI has the advantage that it can measure the entire brain not just the outer layer. The fMRI also has the potential of being way more accurate then an EEG. Downsides to the fMRI are that it works with magnets and thus needs to be shielded from the rest of the world (unless you want to pry the cutlery from the wall each day.) Also the fMRI is the size of a small room and gets bigger if higher resolutions are required though advances in nanotechnology might decrease the size eventually.

A third method would be by inserting a network of small sensors into the brain capable of reading brain activity on a smaller scale then EEG. Downside to this obviously is that you’d need brain surgery with all the risks of complications. We’d even be able to let brain cells directly interact with the chips if we want to.Don’t worry about needing to plug cables into your spine though. These chips would probably be accessed via a wireless technology.

Second thing you’d need is that the computer output is translated into sensory input again. The easiest way to do this is just using current technology. TV’s, headphones, speakers, vibration in game controllers are all designed to translate computer output into sensory input. Trouble is that even the best of these are not realistic. Even advanced simulators are clearly not real.

Luckily we don’t need our senses to create sensory input because all sensory input is processed in the brain. And in the brain alone can we make sense of what our senses detect. By directly stimulating the brain you can create false sensory input. In effect you create the holodeck within your head. experiences gained this way would be indistinguishable from real experiences (except maybe for the fact you are able to fly of course.) Again there are basically two ways of doing this. Invasive or non-invasive.

The non-invasive methods work by stimulating your brain either via electricity tDCS or magnetism TMS. They work by activating your neurons so that they start firing signals to other neurons. In this way you can trick the senses into seeing, hearing and feeling things that are not actually happening. One thing to worry about though is whether this would create a double image so that you’d not only see the ‘holodeck’ image but also what your eyes actually see. (I imagine that you could get quite sick from a double input quite quickly not unlike seasickness.) The viability of either system as a sensory input device is quite questionable as well. Can we actually fire individual neurons in the right pattern? Can we penetrate the brain deeply enough to create realistic input? Because they are non invasive you need to penetrate the brain from the outside which is quite tricky as you can imagine and currently TMS and tDCS can only stimulate large parts of the brain (in terms of brain tissue even a cubic millimetre is a large part).

The invasive method is quite easy (in theory at least): you just hook a chip to the sensory nerves leading to the brain. When you activate your holodeck you just shut off the real input and replace it with the computer images. In practice it is a little trickier of course. It would require cutting the nerve and attaching the chip to each individual cell. Something which is impossible with current technology.

The third thing you’d need is temporary paralysis. Though this may sound scary it is actually already build into our brains. It’s function is to prevent us from acting out our dreams and thus putting ourselves into dangerous situations. Cases are known in which people attack or have sex with their spouses in their sleep because of a lack of sleep paralysis. The sleep paralysis could easily be activated be tDCS, TMS or by implanting a chip and may even be the easiest to accomplish in our neural interface holodeck.

In conclusion I can say that if a holodeck based on the neural interface will become a reality it is still a long way off. Even if the technology was invented tomorrow to do it practically we’d still lack the knowledge of how the brain actually works to manipulate it so precisely. It sounds scary but would basically be an on demand dream machine. In the case of implants based on wireless technology hacking would be a real concern however.