The transporter in "Star Trek" is one of the most recognizable sci-fi gadgets ever created, but it actually came about as a way for "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry to stay on budget. In the early days of the show, there wasn't enough money to show ships landing every episode, so he needed another way to get people to the ground.
As quickly as you can say, "Beam me up, Scotty!" (a phrase that never actually appears in any of the shows or movies, by the way), the transporter was born. Since then, teleportation has been a staple of science fiction and something lots of scientists are working to achieve in one form or another. And one of those ways just took a big step.
Before, I talk about that though, there's a bit more background information you need to know. There's actually some debate as to how the transporter in "Star Trek" works. As physicist Lawrence Krauss puts it in his book, "The Physics of Star Trek," it's a question of bits or bytes.
In the "bits" scenario, the transporter pulls your molecules apart and sends them to your destination where they're re-assembled back into you. In the "bytes" version, the transporter scans your information into a computer and destroys the original you, then it sends the bytes to your destination where a copy of you is made from other material.
The problem with the "bytes" version is that you're "killed" every time you transport. In fact, I've heard that Gene Roddenberry considered having the transporter print a death certificate for each person who used it.
In "Star Trek," the transporter actually works both ways depending on the episode and what the plot needs. However, it looks like science and practicality are leaning toward one version.
The latest transporter attempt goes with the "bytes" model and is based around 3-D printing. I've talked about 3-D printing before and the cool stuff people are making with it, as well as how it could change the future of manufacturing.
You can already take a 3-D scan of an object and send the file to a 3-D printer to print. The 3-D scanner and the printer don't even need to be in the same place. That sounds kind of like a "bytes" transporter, doesn't it?
Scientists at the Hasso Plattner Institute in Germany have taken it farther with "Scotty," named after the famed Chief Engineer from the original Star Trek series. It's a combination 3-D scanner and printer. Just link two units together, put an object in one "Scotty" and hit the "relocate" button.
The object is scanned and the scan is sent to the other unit to print. What makes "Scotty" unique is that it destroys the original object with a built-in milling machine as it scans it. This is only partly so it can figure out how the object is constructed.
The researchers say destroying the original preserves the object's "uniqueness." They're also hoping it will reduce future problems of copyright infringement when a one-of-a-kind object is transported.
Like most other 3-D printers, "Scotty" only prints in a single color of plastic, so the objects you can transport are kind of limited. Plus it takes hours to print even simple objects. However, as 3-D printing improves, transporting more complicated objects should be possible, and faster.
However, I'm not buying that "Scotty" is the future. In most cases, the things you'd want to teleport, such as tools, furniture, food, medical supplies, etc., are things you want more of, not less. There's no point in destroying the original. And if it is a one-of-a-kind object, just mail it.
And in a future where almost every daily object will be printed to begin with, there's no need to scan an object. Just send the original file to a 3-D printer where you want it printed. I think the Star Trek technology we're more likely headed for instead is the replicator, which can turn energy into just about anything, from clothes to food.
And if we do get to the point where we can successfully scan and print entire human beings? Given how complex we are that's going to be a long time coming. However, even if it does happen, I don't think I'd use a transporter. I believe there's more to people than just molecules, and I'm fairly sure you can't teleport that.
Would you use a transporter if it worked on humans? Let me know in the comments.