Archive for December 1, 2011

On quantum teleportation and continuity of self

December 1, 2011 11 comments

A recent episode of NOVA‘s miniseries The Fabric of the Cosmos, based on Brian Greene’s book of that name and hosted by Greene, featured a discussion of quantum teleportation, and it got me thinking about the subject again.  I’ve considered it as a possible far-future technology for my science fiction, but I’ve been resistant to the idea of using it as a means for teleporting sentient beings, because of the question of whether the self survives.  The question is, if your body is destroyed and an exact duplicate is created elsewhere, is that really the same you?  The being who steps out of the teleporter on the other end has all your memories and personality and considers herself to be the same person who stepped into the transmitting station, and nobody else might be able to tell the difference, but it might still be that the original person’s awareness ceased forever the moment she was destroyed by the teleporter to create her duplicate.  Nobody else could tell the difference, but she could tell — or rather, she could if she hadn’t ceased to exist.  The question is, is there an actual scientific way of resolving this dilemma, or is it doomed to be a matter of philosophy and personal belief forever?  Because I’m not stepping in one of those things — or having one of my beloved characters step into one, at any rate — unless I can be persuaded that there’s a continuity of self-awareness from one end to the other.

But I’ve done a lot of reading about quantum theory over the past couple of years as research for my Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations books, and just other reading in general before that about the idea of decoherence as an explanation for how the quantum world becomes “classical” at a macroscopic scale.  And upon reconsidering quantum teleportation within that context, I’ve realized there’s a possible way to resolve this question, one that actually allows defining the self and its continuity in scientific rather than metaphysical terms and thus allows getting a more concrete handle on the problem.

The key is to look within the question itself and evaluate its unexamined assumptions.  The question is, will my own sense of myself as a continuous, self-aware consciousness be carried through the teleportation process?  To answer that, we must ask the deeper question, what is that sense of self-continuity in the first place?  How does it come about?  A brain is actually an ensemble of trillions of quantum particles, each in its own superposition of multiple states.  What makes all those separate particles function as a continuous whole?  Current quantum theory suggests that it’s their interaction.  By interacting with one another, they become quantum-entangled: that is, as their multiple overlapping states interact, some of those states will correlate with one another.  As those particles interact with still more particles, their states will correlate as well, and you’ll eventually get a whole ensemble of entangled particles whose quantum states are correlated with one another, functioning as a single whole.  (Those other states that don’t correlate either fizzle out to insignificance under the Quantum Darwinism model or branch off into alternate timelines under the Many-Worlds model, but that’s irrelevant here.)  It’s that collective, mutual correlation among all the different particles that creates what we think of as a macroscopic, classical reality.  (This is why it appears to us that measuring a quantum particle collapses its wavefunction into a single state.  “Measurement” is simply a process by which we correlate the states of our own quantum particles with a particular state of the measured particle, so that the ensemble of particles that we call ourselves reacts only to that state and doesn’t perceive the others.)

So when I perceive my mind as a continuous whole, an entity with an unbroken existence in time and space (at least the space within my skull) rather than just a collection of quarks and leptons, that sense of continuity exists because of the interaction and entanglement among my brain’s particles creating a correlation among their states.  Even when I’m not being teleported, I rely on quantum entanglement to give me a continuous sense of existence.

So what happens when someone is quantum teleported?  Her particles are thoroughly scanned along with the particles of a reference object, both of their states measured precisely and defined in relation to one another.  The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle doesn’t let you measure the position and momentum of her particles exactly at the same time, but the reference object lets you get around that: you don’t have to know the specific positions and momenta, you just have to know how they differ from those of the reference particles.  (In my Star Trek fiction, I’ve explained the “Heisenberg compensator” of the transporter as being based on this principle.)  Now, presumably that interaction between our subject and the reference object creates a correlation, an entanglement, between them.  (I’m actually not entirely sure of that part, but I think it stands to reason.)  Now, the reference object is already pre-entangled with a matter supply at the receiving end, and some of the state information of our subject is transmitted instantaneously through that entanglement link while the remainder is transmitted “classically” (i.e. without direct entanglement) via a speed-of-light signal (although theoretically it could be stored and delivered on a hard drive, I imagine, if the storage capacity were high enough).  Then that information — the exact quantum information of the original subject, who’s now been disintegrated (since you can’t record quantum states exactly without changing them) — is superimposed on the receiver station’s matter supply, transforming it into that exact, indistinguishable duplicate of the original.

So what this means, or so it seems to me, is that the subject who steps into the teleporter station to be disintegrated and the one who steps out after being assembled are not only exact, indistinguishable duplicates, but share a quantum entanglement with one another.  Just like the different parts of her brain and body were entangled and correlated with each other all along, thereby giving her a sense of herself as a continuous being.  So if entanglement/correlation is what creates our perception of continuous classical existence, then it stands to reason that by any meaningful definition, the subject who steps out of the receiving station is continuous with the subject who stepped into the transmitting station.  Even though there’s a separation in space and time, they’re still the same unbroken whole, because it’s the quantum entanglement that creates a “whole” out of a bunch of individual particles in the first place, and entanglement is independent of separation in spacetime.  Two entangled particles separated by 50 light years will still be just as directly linked as they would be if they were physically adjacent.  So the classical view that the teleported person ceases to exist for a time and is then reconstructed somewhere else is irrelevant on the quantum level that underlies reality.  It’s still the same continuous self for the same reason that the self exists as a continuous thing in the first place.

So for my purposes, at least as it applies to fiction, I’m now reasonably convinced that quantum teleportation would preserve the continuity of self — that your own self-awareness, your consciousness, would be preserved and unbroken through the process even if you were physically nonexistent for years between transmission and reception (say, if you were beamed across an interstellar distance, or if the hard drive containing your classical data got lost for a while).  It may seem unlikely, but only until you realize that what we perceive as a continuous reality is something of a quantum illusion to begin with, simply a coherent, large-scale correlation among certain states of a bunch of interacting particles.

Although there are still some massive obstacles to consider.  Like, how does the teleporter actually work?  How does it measure all the 10-to-the-29th-power particles in a human body at once?  Given that doing so would require completely disintegrating the subject, that would require a lot of energy, essentially a lot of heat.  It would basically be vaporization.  If it weren’t done instantaneously, wouldn’t that heat and energy rather radically affect the states of the adjacent particles you hadn’t gotten around to scanning yet?  You’d need to scan fast enough to capture the complete information of an intact person.  Conversely, if you did it more gradually, say, by using nanotech or pinpoint lasers to disintegrate a body bit by bit (a la TRON), there’s a question of timing.  If you scan different parts of the brain at different times, then there will be a time lag between the different parts when you reassemble them, and that will alter their relation to one another.  It would be like taking a blurred photo of a moving object because you left the shutter open too long.  (Or more like using slit-scan photography to stretch out an image.)  So even if the brain that came out the other end contained the same continuous mind that went in, the transition would still alter its mental state.  Would that just be a minor hiccup in awareness, or would it actually alter your mind somehow?  Probably the brain’s activity is dynamic enough that it would be temporary, but what about the physiological changes from one part of the body to the other if the scan takes too long, or the reassembly does?  The human body is a jellylike, wibbly-wobbly thing on the inside.  If the process is too slow, then the different ends of an neural connection or a capillary might not line up right because they moved during the scan or the reconstruction stage.

Still, I suppose if you had a powerful enough quantum computer, it might be able to record that amount of state information pretty quickly, and be able to employ corrective algorithms to compensate for any delays in the scanning or reconstruction process.  It might be necessary to be sedated before transmission in order to avoid the discomfort of being disintegrated/reassembled or the sudden alterations of mental state that might occur as a result of scanning lag.

So I’m not going to jump right into using QT in my fiction without trying to get some handle on these practical questions first.  It might not turn out to be better than the alternatives available in a given universe.  It might be more practical or cost-efficient for teleporting small and simple objects or raw materials rather than sentient beings.  But at least I no longer consider the continuity-of-self question to be insurmountable, and that was the most important objection I had.  So the door is open now.


After the daring and deconstruction of season 5, season 6 of Mission: Impossible returned to the more formulaic approach of seasons 2-4.  The seventh and final season continued in much the same vein.  It still focused mainly on domestic crimefighting, though the team did travel abroad a bit more often than in season 6 and had more than one episode involving espionage or terrorism.  As in season 6, there’s also less focus on gadgets and meticulous preparation than in previous seasons and more emphasis on roleplaying and manipulation.  As a result of this, as well as the reduced cast size, Greg Morris and particularly Peter Lupus were both able to show off their acting chops more than before.  Although it was somewhat more expansive in content, the final season was more consistent in quality than the preceding one, with fewer bad episodes but fewer superb ones.

The finest episode of the season — in fact, the finest since season 5 — is without a doubt “The Question,” a marvelous mindgame thriller that would’ve fit right into the inventive, ambitious fifth year.  Second-best is “The Deal,” with its multilayered plan and character tension.  Both of these were scripted by year 7’s story editor Stephen Kandel (known to Star Trek fans as the creator of Harry Mudd, and a future MacGyver producer).  “Speed” is also a high point for its extensive San Francisco location shooting and a strong story that diverged from formula.  “Two Thousand” stands out for its post-apocalyptic flavor and striking location work, and “Leona” for strong characterization.  Most of the rest of the season, I’d say fully half the episodes, hovered around the same modestly-above-average level, routine but reasonably effective.  “Kidnap” stands out as the season’s only off-book mission, but feels disappointingly routine for it, and suffers from a half-hearted attempt at continuity.  “Cocaine” is a modestly effective episode undermined by a flawed, overly cluttered plot.  “Hit” is a decent try that’s damaged by serious flaws.  “The Fountain” is a contrived and awkward mess.  “Incarnate” is silly and borderline racist, and “The Western” is awful, a bizarre patchwork that consists mostly of useless and disconnected subplots.

The season was strongly affected by Lynda Day George’s pregnancy and maternity leave.  “Two Thousand,” “Leona,” “Underground,” and “Speed” were apparently the first ones filmed, late in George’s pregnancy; her role in these was diminished and she was shot only from the shoulders up when she appeared at all, and in “Leona” and “Speed” Casey was mostly in disguise, played by different actresses.  Practically the whole plot of “Speed” was written around George’s diminished presence.  Casey is missing entirely from ten further episodes: She is replaced by Barbara Anderson as Mimi in “Break,” “The Deal,” “TOD-5,”  “Cocaine,” “Movie,” “Hit,” and “Ultimatum”; by Marlyn Mason as Sandy in “Crack-Up”; by Elizabeth Ashley as Andrea in “The Question”; and by no one in “Imitation,” the only episode of the season with no female team member.  So George only participates in a major way in eight episodes this season: “Kidnap,” “The Puppet,” “Incarnate,” “Boomerang,” “The Fountain,” “The Fighter,” “The Pendulum,” and “The Western.”  These eight must have been shot after her return from maternity leave.  However, the episodes were broadcast in a very different order, presumably to spread out the non-Casey episodes rather than have them clumped together.

But this season features a first for M:I — a modicum of concern for continuity.  In past seasons, changes of team composition were never explained, except by the expedient of the dossier scenes showing the team leader choosing the participants.  Regular characters missing from an episode were almost never mentioned, except for one or two early episodes where Barney was not present but was referenced as the builder of a gadget employed in the story.  But here, Casey’s absence was explained by having her on assignment in Europe, and in most of the episodes without Lynda Day George, passing references were made to Casey making an offscreen contribution, either creating a mask used in the episode or carrying out a Europe-based part of the plan.  The only episodes in which Casey was not referenced were “Ultimatum,” “Crack-Up,” and “Imitation.”  Mimi is also the only regular or recurring team member to get an origin story explaining how she came to join the IMF.

In addition to the female agents listed above, the core team of Jim Phelps, Barney Collier, and Willy Armitage was assisted by the following individuals:

02 Two Thousand: Det. White (Don Diamond); actors playing Sergeant (Barry Cahill), Admiral (Harry Lauter), Marshall (Mort Mills), and others; police chief cooperates
03 The Deal: Repertory co. incl. Lt. Blair (Paul Gleason); Casey assists offscreen
04 Leona: Driver (uncredited), laundry truck driver (uncredited, Ed McCready?); cooperation from cops incl. Plainclothesman (Dick Valentine)
05 TOD-5: Repertory players incl. Green (James McCallion); Casey assists offscreen; population of Woodfield cooperates
06 Cocaine: Cooperation from Frank Fallon, police, government
07 Underground: Police cooperate
08 Movie: Voice impersonator Dave (Walker Edmiston); police cooperate
09 Hit: Impersonator Jack (uncredited); prison warden & police cooperate
10 Ultimatum: Large task force incl. announcer Carl (Fred Holliday), operator Lisa (Judith Brown), & actor Jack (Dale Tarter); police incl. Patrolman Frank Daggett (Vince Howard) and Sergeant (Bob Legionaire)
11 Kidnap: Dowager (Monty Margetts)
12 Crack-Up: Dr. Adler (Arthur Franz), Orderly (Michael Masters, uncredited)
13 The Puppet: Impersonator Hank (Richard Devon); actor Khalid (Joseph Ruskin); possibly travel agent (Shirley Washington)
14 Incarnate: Group of “voodoo” dancers; unidentified actor impersonating Robert O’Connell (Solomon Sturges)
15 Boomerang: Impersonator Bert (uncredited)
17 The Fountain: Unidentified extras; police cooperate
18 The Fighter: Voice impersonator Dave (Walker Edmiston)
19 Speed: Driver (George P. Wilbur); police and Ramsay Sanitarium staff cooperate
20 The Pendulum: Telephone operator (Beverly Moore); impersonator Manny (Don Reid); ensemble including Arab (Peter Mamakos)
21 The Western: Driver (Troy Melton), stuntman (uncredited)
22 Imitation: Impersonator/jeweler Duval (Ray Ballard, uncredited); electronics store clerk (uncredited)

Note that Walker Edmiston (who had done many prior uncredited voiceover roles) appears twice as Dave, although he’s credited in “Movie” as Waley and in “The Fighter” as Rawls.  This might be a case where the role was scripted as a different character but the director or actors chose to inject a touch of continuity by using his previous character’s name.  Dave is the first recurring minor team member we’ve had since the first season’s Dr. Green (Allen Joseph), who appeared twice and was referenced as an offscreen participant once.  I’m not counting the Hartford and Globe Repertory Companies since no specific characters were ever established for them and I’m not aware of any credited actors who recurred as company members (though some extras probably did).

As mentioned above, continuity was a new feature this season.  For the first time, we had episodes referring back to elements of previous adventures.  “Kidnap” was a nominal sequel to season 6’s “Casino,” though it contradicted many of the particulars of that episode.  In “Incarnate,” Jim used the name of a gangster who appeared in “Movie” as a character reference; and for the first time (as far as I recall), a team member adopted the same false identity on two separate occasions, with Jim playing hitman Dave Riker in both “Boomerang” and “The Fighter.”  Okay, it’s the barest bones of continuity by today’s standards, but it was a novelty for Mission: Impossible, whose episodes generally had so little continuity that they might as well have been in alternate universes from one another.

Another new feature this season, and an outstanding one, is the impressive location work.  The past few seasons felt very studio-bound, with the Paramount backlot becoming very familiar and the Paramount office buildings showing up in slightly redressed form almost every week.  Season 7 took the production out of the studio far more often, making extensive use of varied and striking locations.  In particular, most of the tape sequences of the season and the majority of the episode “Speed” were filmed on location in San Francisco (probably around the same time).  This would imply that Jim Phelps and the team were based in San Francisco, since it stands to reason that Jim would get the tape drops near his home.  However, he seems to have the same apartment he had in previous seasons where the tape drops were recognizably in Los Angeles, and there’s at least one tape drop this season that’s near LA City Hall.  Again, we may need to invoke alternate universes.

As before, the tape messages this season lack the line “If any of your IM Force are caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.”  That line was abandoned near the end of season 5 and will not be heard again until the 1988 revival.  However, the references to “conventional law enforcement agencies” which were used in most 6th-season episodes are only in around 13 episodes this season. All in all, there were 19 distinct tape scenes this season, two of which were partially used twice; only one episode, “Kidnap,” had no tape scene. Twelve of the tape scenes were shot in exterior locations, mostly San Francisco landmarks.  Two others combined an exterior “arrival” shot with an interior tape sequence.  All the tape scenes used the standard small reel-to-reel tape except for “TOD-5,” which used a phonograph record (so I guess it wasn’t really a tape scene).  It’s worth noting that only one episode in the entire series, season 2’s “The Seal,” ever used a standard cassette tape to deliver the briefing.  This is odd, since I’m sure cassettes were in standard use by the last couple of seasons.  All the tape scenes this season featured self-destructing media.

Speaking of locations, while only a portion of one sixth-season episode took place outside of the US, three 7th-season missions took place mostly or entirely overseas: “The Deal” and “Incarnate” on fictitious Caribbean island nations (Camagua and Jamada, respectively), “The Fountain” in Northern Mexico.  There are also five episodes that, while US-based, depart from crimefighting to deal with terrorism or international intrigue: “Two Thousand,” “TOD-5,” “Ultimatum,” “The Question,” “The Pendulum.”  (“The Deal” is a hybrid mob/intrigue story, about mobsters backing an overseas coup.  One could also count “Imitation” as a borderline case, since a small part of the episode deals with infiltrating an unfriendly nation’s embassy, and since there are international stakes if their crown jewels are lost.)  So while the season continued the previous year’s format of the IMF as primarily a mob-busting team, it featured more of the kinds of cases the organization was formed to handle.

Musically, this is by far the least impressive season of M:I.  Only two episodes featured full original scores: “Underground” by Lalo Schifrin and “Ultimatum” by one-time composer Duane Tatro.  Both are decent but unremarkable.  “The Puppet” had a small amount of new music, I believe.  Several other episodes credited Schifrin as composer but featured no new music that I could discern.  Conversely, “Incarnate” had new source music and atmospherics but no credited composer.  There is also a new arrangement of the main title theme, making this the only season other than the 5th to use a variant arrangement.

So that’s the end of the original Mission: Impossible.  All in all, it’s a reasonably good wrap-up.  While it’s far short of the heights of seasons 1 and 5, it’s more stable in quality than the preceding season. It consists mostly of routine, but then, so did most of the series, as it turned out.  And as formula-dominated seasons go, it holds up relatively well — not brilliant (except in “The Question”), but generally well-executed and not unpleasant.  At least I can say that the show avoided any major deterioration in overall quality toward the end, and even went up a bit on average from its penultimate to final year, even if there were fewer outstanding episodes.  It didn’t go out with a bang, but I wouldn’t call it a whimper either.  It just stayed the course until it stopped.

Still to come, a retrospective of the entire original series.

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