Thursday, April 30, 2015

Teleporter on Trial

Copyright © 2005 by Joel Marks

Published in scifidimensions
October 2005.

(With a tip of the Hatlo hat to Daniel Dennett, Peter Carruthers, “Jerzy Shaffer,” et al.)

Doctor, I don’t know who I am.

You are Andre Polonsky.

This is not clear to me.

What do you mean?

I don’t know how to explain.

Are you suffering from amnesia?

No, no. I remember everything. That is, I know everything about Andre Polonsky that there is to know … I mean, that he could know. What I don’t know is whether I am he.

This sounds very similar to the case you just prosecuted.

Yes, of course.

Then why don’t you tell me what the one has to do with the other.


On a hot July morning in 2043, Alyosha Kemlin went to the transporter in New York on his way to work in New New York. His ticket stub shows that he arrived at the station at 7:45 a.m. EDT and was transmitted at 8:04 a.m., arriving on Mars at 8:09 a.m. MST7. Reconstruction took 17 minutes. He then proceeded into the terminal, where he purchased a cup of moffee. Moffee in hand, he emerged from the terminal at approximately 8:30, whereupon he was shot in the face by Ivan Turbotsin, who had been waiting for him. The security guard immediately disarmed Ivan, who offered no resistance. An ambulance was summoned, and Alyosha was pronounced dead at the scene at 8:40. When police arrived at 8:44, Ivan spontaneously confessed to having shot Alyosha. “Good riddance to the bastard,” he concluded before lapsing into silence for the trip to the lock-up.

Subsequent interviews and investigation revealed a typical love triangle. None of the facts were left in doubt. Ivan cooperated fully. In fact, he had no desire to defend himself at all, refusing even to hire an attorney or act in his own behalf. It was as if, his revenge spent, he had no desires left at all.

But procedures must be followed, so the court assigned him an attorney, who submitted a pro forma “Not guilty” plea on Ivan’s behalf. Unfortunately, by the luck of the draw, the attorney he was assigned was the notorious gadfly, Socratina Laertes. The “not guilty” plea turned out, therefore, not to be pro forma at all. Socratina had an angle.

Things moved along rapidly, since the police work was over quickly. Socratina asked for no delays, as she did not want her client to remain incarcerated longer than was absolutely necessary. She was acting with supreme confidence. Evidently all she did was line up a couple of expert witnesses and brief them on her idea. Her client had by this time retired into a mood of complete indifference, neither cooperating with nor resisting her plans. Meanwhile, I also had no objection to moving right ahead, as it was an open and shut case. I was asking for the death penalty.

The trial took place on Mars, as this was the venue of the crime. It was a day like any other in the climate controlled dome of  New New York – pleasantly invigorating. The government made its case, reciting the facts and the background. We called a few witnesses: the terminal guard, the ambulance medic, the police detectives on scene and from interrogation, the ex-wife. Socratina had hardly a word to say. She made no objections during the entire proceeding. Frankly, I was baffled as to what she had in mind by way of a defense. The government closed. Socratina called her first witness.

Please state your name and profession for the court (said Socratina).

Jack Devis. Independent engineer.

Have you ever done work related to so-called teleporters?

Yes I have.

Please describe the nature of that work.

I was part of the original design team for the device. New technology had made it feasible to CT-scan a human being’s body and brain in every particular and then digitize the information for transmission via electromagnetic radiation – in layperson’s terms, on a light beam. This seemed to open up the promise of transmission of people themselves – to enable them to travel without their bodies – hence, much more quickly than a body can travel -- at the speed of light -- and far less expensively than transporting a human body over a long distance.

You say, “seemed to open up the promise.” Did it not do so in fact?

“Your honor,” I objected at this point, “what possible relevance has this review of the history of teleportation? This is an accepted fact of daily life. Most of us in this room, in fact, teleported here today for this trial.”

“Ms. Laertes?” inquired the judge.

“Your honor,” she replied, “I am seeking to establish that my client is innocent of the murder of Alyosha Kemlin. If you will allow me to continue questioning the witness, I shall supply the proof in a very short time.”

As you can imagine, a look of astonishment appeared on every face in the room – the judge’s, the jury’s, mine, even the defendant’s – all except for Socratina’s and the witness’s.

“What are you talking about? I killed the bastard!” interrupted Ivan.

“Order! Order in the court!” intoned the judge. “I will permit no further outbursts of this sort, Mr. Turbotsin. Ms. Laertes, your remarks are puzzling. But as this is a capital case, and the evidence so far presented seems so overwhelmingly prejudicial to your client, the court will lean over backwards to allow you to defend him. The objection is therefore overruled. Please continue to question the witness. However, if the testimony does not demonstrate its relevance within a reasonable period of time, I shall receive another objection from Mr. Polonsky more favorably.”

Thank you, your honor (Socratina replied). Now, Mr. Devis, your wording before suggested that you may have had some reservation about teleportation. Did you?

Yes, I did. In order for the device to work as intended, there must be a human body at each out of the transmission. A human being walks into the transmitter and of course a human being walks out of the receiver, but no human body has been teleported.

That seems obvious enough. So what is the problem?

Well, a means had to be devised to reconstruct a human body from the transmitted data on the receiving end. Here again the new technology proved to be up to the task.

And so …?

But there still remained the problem of the human body that enters the transmitter. It had to be, ah, disposed of, you see.

That would not seem to present any special technological problem, would it?

None at all. In fact, the method that has become routine is simply to cremate the body. The raw materials are then used to reconstruct new bodies from incoming data.

(At this point there was some squirming among the jurors, as laypeople are generally no more acquainted with the details of teleportation than they are with the blood and guts of medical surgery or, for that matter, with the butchering that gives us those pleasantly packaged meats at the supermarket.)

“Your honor …” I began

“Yes, Mr. Polonsky. Ms. Laertes, could you please bring this discussion to some relevant conclusion?”

Yes, you honor (Socratina replied). So, Mr. Devis, you still have not told us what specifically bothers you. It is not that you are squeamish …?

Not in the least. It is what happens just prior to the cremation. The person must first of course be killed.

“Your honor! This is outrageous!”

“Mr. Devis,” interjected the judge, “what do you mean that the person must be killed? The person is in the process of being transported – electromagnetically – to his destination, is that not so? I would ask you to refrain from speaking sensationalistically. It is only the body that is destroyed at the transmitter, not the person, am I correct?”

“Your honor,” the witness replied, “in my opinion I spoke correctly. Just before the cremation the person is given a painless, instantly acting lethal injection.”

“In fact, your honor,” interposed Socratina, “it is the identical procedure that the government wishes to impose on my client.”

“You honor!” I protested.

Ms. Laertes, if you please,” the judge reprimanded, “allow me to continue to question the witness myself. For my own edification, if you don’t mind.”

“Certainly, your honor,” Socratina replied – I could swear with a slight concavity to her lips and eyebrows.

“So, Mr. Devis, you claim that the person entering the teleporter is killed. But there are often cases where the transmission breaks down, for example, during an electrical storm caused by a solar flare. In those cases transmission is temporarily suspended and the person exits the transmitter in fine shape, perfectly alive.”

“The m.o. is to await confirmation of successful transmission before killing the person. Thus, it is only after somebody walks out of the receiver at the destination that the word is given to terminate the person at the transmitter.”

“I see,” said the judge, somewhat uncertainly. “Well, then, Ms. Laertes, where is all this taking us? Continue your questioning of the witness, and would you please … wrap it up.”

Thank you, your honor (said Socratina). Mr. Devis, if the person entering the transmitter is killed, then who is it that emerges from the receiver?

That is something I am unable to answer.

Why? Do you know the answer but will not tell us?

No, I genuinely have no idea who that person is … or even if it is a person at all. I only know who it is not.

Then, who is it not?

The person who went into the transmitter. That person is dead, or will be as soon as word gets back to the transmission station that somebody, or –thing, has emerged intact from the receiver.

Then in the case before this court, if Alyosha Kemlin entered a transmitter on Earth at 8:04 a.m. EDT, could he have been on Mars a few minutes later?

In my opinion, no.

Then he could not have been killed on Mars a few minutes after that?

In my opinion, no.

No further questions for the witness, your honor.

A hush stole over the court room. I myself was a bit dizzied by the upshot of Devis’s questioning. So this was her strategy – absurd! It had to be some kind of incredibly specious line of reasoning, for the conclusion was patently false. But I had to think of a way to refute it on the spot. I did my thinking on my feet.

“Have you any questions for the witness, Mr. Polonsky?”

Yes indeed, your honor (I replied). Mr. Devis, I … and I’m sure members of the jury … am having some difficulty absorbing the implications of what you have expressed as your personal opinion on this subject. So, if I may, let us go over these things carefully. Now, you say that Alyosha Kemlin was killed on Earth. Well, so what if that is true. Can’t we just say that he was … as it were, reincarnated on Mars? Isn’t that in fact what teleportation involves: putting somebody into a new, albeit identical, body at the destination?

I suppose you could think of it like that. But you could also think of it as a wholly new person being created at the (supposed) receiving end.

But this “wholly new person” would be completely identical to the person who entered the transmitter, would he not? Not only the same body, but the same mind, the same soul?

Well, with all due respect, I’m not sure what the soul has to do with it. This is a strictly physical transmission of information via electromagnetic radiation. If somebody has a soul when they entered the transmitter, I don’t understand how it’s supposed to travel along afterward with digitized information on a light beam to another physical location. Indeed, that’s one of the reasons I have for thinking that a person is not being transmitted at all.

Mr. Devis, then what is it that you think emerges from the receiver? You are saying it is not only not the same person who entered the transmitter, but not a person at all?

That is what I said before. I suppose it might be, well, like a zombie.

Mr. Devis! Your story becomes more bizarre with each telling of it. I do not think this will be helpful to Mr. Turbotsin’s case.

“Your honor,” interrupted Socratina.

“Mr. Polonsky, no editorializing, please.”

I’m sorry, your honor (I said). Mr. Devis, let us just stick with the facts and forgo metaphysical speculations. The person (please permit me to use that term, as it is only common sense) – the person who emerges from the receiver is in every particular that we can determine by means of our senses identical to the one who entered the transmitter, is that not so?

Yes, I think that is so.

So, for all practical purposes, it is the same person, is it not?

Well, I’m not sure what you mean by “practical purposes.”

Please don’t quibble, Mr. Devis. I mean that the person could perform all the same functions – could do the same job, could recall everything about the life of the person who entered the transmitter that that person was capable of recalling himself, could, and would, love his wife, or her husband, in exactly the same way as before, etc., etc.

I grant all that. But that’s not everything.

I don’t understand you, Mr. Devis. What else could there possibly be?

Well, let me put it this way. Suppose I have a piece of paper that I want to make some copies of. I put it into a photocopy machine, and out come the copies. Now it seems to me that the original piece of paper is different from the copies, even though the copies might be, as you would put it, identical in every particular to the original. But they are not the same piece of paper I inserted into the copier.

Mr. Devis, what does a copy machine have to do with a teleporter? Teleporters do not make copies; they send the original itself. That is the point; otherwise, nothing has been teleported.

My point is that a teleporter is not a teleporter; in fact, it is a copy machine.

That’s just an opinion. What possible reason can you have for saying such a thing? Again, it flies in the face of common sense.

It’s very simple, really. Remember that the person who enters the transmitter is killed (if you will permit me to speak that way) only after the transmission has been confirmed. That means, for a few minutes, while we await word from the distant destination – since the message can only travel at the speed of light and not instantaneously – there are identical bodies, or perhaps persons, at both ends. But there cannot be two of the same person. Therefore one of them must be a copy.

(I was momentarily mentally staggered by this argument. I began to sweat as I sensed the jury’s gaze upon me. I grasped at straws while desperately trying to think of a telling retort.)

Mr. Devis, that is an ingenious argument, to be sure. But surely it must be specious. You are even contradicting yourself: You keep referring to a transmission, so aren’t you admitting that this really is a teleporter?

Oh, I do not deny that there has been a transmission – of information. I only deny that the person – perhaps even a person – has been teleported.

Why, if that were the case, you yourself would be … well, you would not be Jack Devis at all!

Why do you say that?

Did you not teleport here to be an expert witness at this trial? But, according to you, that means the real Jack Devis was killed somewhere on Earth, and you are some kind of imposter!

(The jury laughed quietly, but with an air of relief. After all, they too had mostly teleported to the court that very morning.)

I beg your pardon, but I did not teleport here for the trial, nor have I ever teleported in my life. I was sent out here by rocket many years ago as part of the crew to set up the first teleporter installation on Mars. It was then that the full magnitude of what we were about to undertake struck me. I quit my job and have remained here ever since. You’ll never get me into one of those contraptions, nor any one I know whom I can persuade otherwise.

“Your honor,” I said, thoroughly at a loss as to how to respond and wanting to cut my losses, “we have no more questions for the witness at this time. We reserve the right to re-examine this witness after any other witnesses the defense may wish to call. Otherwise, we request a recess.”

“Ms. Laertes?”

“Your honor, the defense calls Jerzy Shaffer to the stand. As Mr. Shaffer has a view of so-called teleporters that is similar to Mr. Devis’s, he also has never entered one. And since he did not wish to undertake the long interruption to his job nor endure the stress or risk of a trip by rocket, not to mention the expense to the court and delay of the trial, we have arranged for him to speak via visiphone.”

“Yes, teleporters are very convenient,” I interposed, knowing I would be admonished by the judge, but unable to resist.

Unfortunately (Socratina continued), this does mean we will have a several-minute delay between each question and response, due to transmission over the great distance between our two planets. I ask the permission of the court, therefore, for rather more comprehensive questions to be put to the witness and similarly for his answers.”

(The judge granted the request. I was glad: I could use the thinking time myself.)

Mr. Shaffer, what is your occupation (Socratina asked)?

Professor of philosopher.

(Ah, I thought, a patsy. The defense is moving from science fiction to metaphysics, which will only heighten the implausibility of their case in the jury’s minds.)

What did you think about the testimony of Mr. Devis, which has been transmitted to you?

I think Mr. Devis has nicely made the case that teleporters are in fact not teleporters but, instead, glorified copy machines. I will continue to call them teleporters -- although I would rather call them “purporters,” if you will forgive my attempt at humor. I always do find engineers to be among the most logical thinkers among my students at the university. But if there are any particulars about his arguments or any others that you or the prosecution would like to clarify, I will try to assist.

No, thank you. I myself am quite satisfied with the case that has already been made. I have invited you as a witness solely to allow the prosecution an opportunity to exhaustively pursue the matter. Your witness, Mr. Polonsky.

(Whoa: Talk about throwing down the gauntlet! What a brazen move. Her defense is so desperate that she wants to substitute a show of supreme confidence and shift the burden of proof to me. It is a clever move, I must admit. I am trained as an attorney, but I know that these philosophers can be sharper even than we when it comes to logical sparring.)

Thank you, Ms. Laertes (I said). Now, Mr. Shaffer, there are a number of things that trouble me about the line of argument you claim to share with Mr. Devis. Let us suppose that you both are correct to think of a teleporter as a copy machine. My question is this: Why would that rule out its also being a teleporter? Mr. Devis proposed that one and the same person cannot be a double. Well, is that really so? Why not? Once again, the person who emerges from the receiver is identical in every respect to the person who enters the transmitter. Well, all right, both of them may exist at the same time. If there is absolutely nothing to tell them apart, then don’t we just have to say that a person can exist in two places at the same time?

Mr. Polonsky, I applaud your logical boldness (Shaffer replied). A true philosopher must be prepared to discard common sense if that is where the argument takes him or her. So it is quite proper for you to demand more evidence than simply the cliché or everyday intuition that nothing can be in two places at the same time. In this instance, however, I am on the side of common sense. Here is a further consideration to help make the point. Suppose someone were to make an exact replica of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, and then one day the original were to perish. Do you think anyone could plausibly deny that an irreparable loss had been suffered? To put it in more homely terms: Suppose both the original and the replica were in existence and both were purchased by a private collector to help the government with its perennial debt. Let us make this more plausible by supposing that the collector agreed to leave the original document in its existing location in perpetuity and had in effect only purchased pride of ownership. Now suppose that this friend of the nation wanted to insure his purchases. Do you suppose he could convince any insurance company to offer him the same coverage for the replica as for the original? Not likely, I’d say. Indeed, were the original of the Declaration to become tattered and the copy to resemble the original more than the original resembled itself, so to speak, still we would value the original more, would we not? That is because John Hancock signed the one, and not the other. It is the history of a thing that establishes its identity, not the qualities of a thing. Well, I don’t think that a human being is less unique than a document, do you? An infant bears hardly any resemblance to a middle-aged adult, but the two can share an identity because they are linked in the right way; while identical twins may be indistinguishable, but they are nonetheless distinct entities.

But Mr. Shaffer, what are you, and Mr. Devis, suggesting? Mr. Devis himself was unable to tell us who or what emerges from the receiver of the teleporter: What is your take on that? If it is not the same person, is it not still a person? But if it is a person, and it is not the same person as the one who entered the teleporter, then who is it?

I myself believe it is a person, but not the same person; or, to use the subtleties of our language to depict the difference, it is an identical person, but not the identical person.

Your point may make metaphysical sense, Mr. Shaffer, but what is its cash value? Let me grant you that in some obscure sense, the persons at either end of the teleporter process are not one and the same person. But is this not a distinction without a difference? Yes, there could be some awkward moments if two identical people showed up at their significant other’s doorstep … assuming there is only one of the significant other! But given that cremation and reconstruction of bodies are coordinated in the teleporter process, is not the net effect as if teleportation had occurred?

I think that that “as if” is a rather important one under the circumstances, Mr. Polonsky – a supremely important one – a matter of life and death, not to be one jot over-dramatic. I ask you to adopt the first-person point of view on the situation. There you are, entering the transmitter. At some point you lose consciousness (when the lethal injection is administered). I think your position is that the next thing you know, you are at your destination. It is like waking up from a good night’s sleep, or after a surgical procedure during which you have been anaesthetized: It may seem as if no time at all has elapsed between the prior moment of consciousness and the present one. But my feeling is this, Mr. Polonsky – and this may startle you and the members of the jury, as well it should – I believe that that moment of consciousness just before the lethal injection is your last moment of consciousness. Oh, indeed, I am prepared to admit that the being who “wakes up” at the destination will experience consciousness, and even believe that his or her consciousness is continuous with that of the person who entered the transmitter. But my claim is that this is a false belief: that in fact the first person is dead and this person has been alive for only an instant.

(There was a low commotion in the courtroom. I could scarcely contain my own merriment at the preposterousness of the philosopher’s assertion.)

Thank you, Mr. Shaffer. Your honor, the prosecution has no further questions for the witness.

(As there were no other witnesses called by the defense, and I declined to re-question the defense’s first witness, since I felt confident the second witness’s testimony had hoisted their case by its own petard, we proceeded immediately to summations. I spoke first.)

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the defense has made a noble effort to characterize what happened at the New New York teleporter terminal on July 27, 2043, as a non-event. Even against the protestations of the defendant himself, Ms. Laertes has argued that Ivan Turbotsin killed no one, because teleporters are not teleporters, but copy machines, which spew forth merely ersatz imitations of the originals, the real-live flesh-and-blood people who entered them. In the course of this argument, the defense’s witnesses have tried to persuade us that most or perhaps all of us are not people either, for have we not all used a teleporter at one time or another in our lives? But, according to the defense, that means we died when we did so; and now who we are, standing or sitting here in this courtroom, nobody can say. Evidently some of us are very young indeed, according to this theory – even “born yesterday” does not do justice to those of us who arrived by teleporter for this trial this very morning! Ladies and gentlemen, as the defense has otherwise granted all the facts of the case that were presented by the prosecution, I have no more to say except: Please render a verdict of “Guilty” for the perpetrator of this cold-blooded murder. Thank you.

(Socratina then made her remarks.) Ladies and gentlemen, I know that the argument of the defense has struck some of you as strange. And yet the logic is impeccable. The prosecution has found no fault with it, but only with the implications. But what are we to say to that? When Copernicus presented his arguments for a moving Earth, even some of the most learned found it implausible … impossible to conceive. Why? There was nothing wrong with his logic. They just didn’t like the implications. Well, I am sorry. The world does not always conform to our likes and dislikes. Your duty today is to serve justice, nothing more, nothing less. The charge against my client is that he murdered one Alyosha Kemlin. We have proven that, even if it was a person who emerged from the terminal in New New York, it was not Alyosha Kemlin, but at best an exact duplicate of him. Alyosha Kemlin was in fact killed on Earth, not by a bullet fired by the defendant, but by an injection administered by a teleporter attendant. Therefore, even if Ivan Turbotsin has killed someone, he has not killed Alyosha Kemlin. You must, in good conscience, grant that there is, at the very least, a reasonable doubt about the prosecution’s claim. Therefore I ask you good women and men to acquit my client of the charge against him. Thank you.


Well, Doctor, you know the outcome.

Yes indeed: Ivan was convicted. The jury could not accept the absurd implications of the defense’s arguments.

And, accordingly, Ivan was executed.

Yes, justice was served, as you said. So why have you come to see me?

Doctor, as I left the courtroom after the trial on my way to the teleporter for my return home to my loving wife and family, a nagging thought crystallized in my mind. That last claim of Shaffer’s – it had seemed absurd: that the consciousness of the person entering the transmitter might not be continuous with the consciousness of the person emerging from the receiver. Why not? Just because there had been a time gap? Deep sleep presents a similar situation, so a time gap should not count against the continuity of the two consciousnesses. But now another argument occurred to me; perhaps Shaffer would have spoken this himself had I not immediately ended my questioning in order to truncate his testimony at what appeared to be its weakest point in order to impress the jury. Since Alyosha Kemlin was still conscious on Earth, awaiting confirmation of transmission before his lethal injection, when, I claimed that Alyosha Kemlin was emerging, fully conscious, from the teleporter on Mars, the latter’s sense of continuous consciousness with the former is really no longer sufficient to establish their identity. For would we not instead expect at this point – if the two were really the same person – that “both” would suddenly experience a kind of binocular consciousness? Just as our two eyes contribute to a single visual experience, would not, for example, the four eyes of the two Alyoshas yield a double and simultaneous visual awareness of Earth and Mars if these were indeed the same person? But nobody who uses a teleporter reports that kind of experience.

Therefore …?

Therefore … I suddenly found myself unable to enter the teleporter for the trip back to Earth. I felt, truly, like the man I had just condemned to death. I felt as if I were about to be executed, and by the same means.

But that trial was months ago!

Yes, I have been here ever since. I am stuck. Oh, I will rocket home eventually … if I can find a way to convince the government to pick up the expense. Even then it could be a long wait, as rockets are few and far between now that we have teleportation.

But … your wife and children?

I miss them terribly. They miss me. But my wife has come to the conclusion that I am simply crazy … especially because I won the case! She cannot understand. Furthermore, as the days have extended to months, she despairs of my ever “snapping out of it” and has even hinted at divorce. After all, it’s not only a question of my returning home. It’s my whole career. Anyone who does not use a teleporter these days is not going to have many people put up with the exorbitant expense of moving him around physically – what with the reduced demand, the prices have skyrocketed. And even visiphones are inconvenient, as we saw at the trial, because of the transmission delay over the long distances of interplanetary business that are now commonplace.

Then … what do you want from me: metaphysical argument? For that you would need another philosopher.

You may think that is funny, but I have consulted others, and none who made any sense to me disagreed with Shaffer’s position.

And this is so even though you, and they, recognize that one implication of that point of view is that there is a human holocaust every day of the week!