Strange Changes

I have always held the assumption - and it's a reasonable one, by the way - that quantum teleportation would not happen until after quantum computing. Even so, I've been going around for a while now telling people that quantum teleportation was probably no more than 20 years away. "It'll be like 'Star Trek,'" I'd say. "You could just teleport around. It would mean the end of everything we know now." They would always laugh at me and say, "Twenty years? More like 500." And of course, I had to agree that this was possible, and they would tell me I was overly optimistic and a big technophile, and then they would make me buy them another beer, since these conversations usually happened in bars.

This week, scientists at the Australian National University announced that they have performed a successful quantum teleportation experiment, in which they teleported an information-bearing laser beam from one side of a room to another.

Laugh at me now, you fuckers. Next round's on you.

This doesn't mean you'll be seeing a teleport station in the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog next to the personal submarine and the gold-plated underwear hanger any time soon. Teleporting atoms is a very different proposition than teleporting photons, which is what light (and hence laser beams) are made of. Right now, the practical applications of this experiment are limited to three things: 1) optical computer networking, 2) quantum computing and 3) getting every researcher involved in the project wildly fucked by nerd groupies. Well, one would hope so, at any rate. But the implications of this project are still mostly in the laboratory, not on the street, and will be for a while.

It's still a major breakthrough in quantum physics, and there are a few more textbooks that need to be rewritten ... but what's most fascinating about the Australian teleportation experiment is that it essentially comes out of nowhere. Well, not nowhere; IBM's been working on it for a while, and CalTech did something similar four years ago. It's always been possible in theory. But there hasn't really been a lot of talk in the scientific community about seriously doing teleportation, in this century anyway. It was always assumed that you would first have to invent a quantum computer capable of handling the processing power required to tear something into its component particles and then put it back together. So when somebody actually goes ahead and teleports something, without the aid of quantum computers and well ahead of even the most optimistically drunk futurist's schedule, it's kind of ... well, it's kind of embarrassing.

The problem with predicting the future is that you often end up looking like an asshole. Look at the poor bastards in the 1950s who kept saying things like, "Everybody on Earth will have a flying car by, oh, I don't know, 1976. At the latest." The only thing everybody on Earth had in 1976 was a bad haircut and a copy of Frampton Comes Alive!, and we still don't have flying cars or holographic televisions or food pills or artificial intelligence, or any of the goofy stuff that was supposed to be a part of everyday life by the year 2000.

But even the most fanciful technology prophet doesn't look quite as stupid as the dumbass who errs too far on the side of caution. Thomas Watson of IBM was quoted in 1943 as saying that the world would only need "maybe five computers." I have nine working computers in my house. Even as recently as the early 1990s, Robert Metcalfe - the inventor of Ethernet - claimed that the Internet would collapse due to overpopularization in 1996. Scientific history is full of these sort of statements, most of which get proven wrong almost immediately. Heavier-than-air flight is impossible. Telephones will never achieve popular usage. The sound barrier will never be broken. We won't be able to actually clone a mammal until some time in the middle of the 21st century. People believed all of these things, some of them until quite recently.

Look at the world around you. Nanotechnology is fast becoming a reality. Human cloning is right around the corner. Quantum teleportation leads to quantum computing, which leads eventually to parallel-universe hopping ... and is there anybody who's really willing to put hard money on how soon this stuff is gonna come down the pipeline? Anybody? I didn't think so. Sooner rather than later seems to be the best stance to take. Things are happening faster; the Internet allows scientists to share findings and compare notes much more quickly than they used to. Projects that used to take decades can now take only months. I suspect that this quantum teleportation deal has cut 10 years off the timetable for the invention of commercial quantum computers.

But I might be wrong. It might be three years. It might be 30. I've learned that I'm never going to see everything coming down the road of technology. All I can do, as David Bowie said in that dim dead year of 1971, is turn and face the strange ch-ch-changes, and keep my eye out for the Next Big Thing.

Joshua Ellis, raconteur and deranged futurist, has a doctorate in divinity from the Universal Life Church. He can be contacted at jzellis@yahoo.com or on the web at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/paranoid_annex, the discussion group for this column.

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