Beam me up, Scotty! Even non-Trekkies know this (mis)quote from Star Trek. It reminds us of the effortless way of traveling that Captain Kirk and his crew enjoy: Teleportation.
It sounds like science fiction, but what if it were really possible? What would the implications be for our daily lives and mobility? Join me on a hypothetical journey into a very distant future of transportation.
Teleportation is the ability to move objects or people from one place to another, far away, in an instant. The television series Star Trek popularized this idea by introducing an ingenious device called “the transporter”. Some members of the Enterprise crew step onto a platform, Scotty or another colleague turns up a slider, and the people in the transporter disappear in some glittering special effects. Seconds later, they reappear in some remote location, usually on the surface of a planet.
Beaming was introduced to the show by the writers so that the crew members would not have to fly to the planet’s surface in another spaceship. This would have required expensive special effects and would have taken time out of the episode that could not be used for actual plot. Beaming is instantaneous, so the action can continue immediately.
Commuters stuck in traffic jams or crowded subways envy the Enterprise crew. But what if beaming were actually possible? The famous physicist Michio Kaku (Link) predicted that within a hundred years we might have the technology to build a real transporter.
If this dream came true, how would it change our lives? Would it be beneficial for everyone, or could it even become a nightmare? Let’s explore the impact that teleportation would have on our lives.
What would people do if they had the power to teleport anything or anyone they wanted from one place to another?
I would like to think that people will use it for good, to make their lives easier, to save time, etc.
But my first thoughts when I started thinking about the implications of beaming were rather grim. If the history of the Internet has taught us anything, it is that people will not follow utopian visions, they will often follow their own vices and greed in using new technology.
What would people do if they could teleport anything they wanted? They would start transporting things that do not belong to them! How much easier would theft be if you could push a button and the item you want materializes in your room? Or even worse, think about kidnapping. That would also be so easy. How can anyone feel safe knowing that they can be beamed out of their home while they sleep?
The ultimate nightmare scenario I could think of was that evil states could use a transporter to conquer the world. They could use a transporter to send nuclear bombs to all the cities of the (perceived) enemy and detonate them immediately. There would be no time for warning, no way to detect the incoming missiles and prepare a retaliation. The logic of Mutually Assured Destruction would no longer apply.
In my darkest dreams, transporter technology could pretty much mean the end of the world…
That said, I want to write about transportation, not global politics. For the sake of my article, I will assume that along with the transporter, we will develop technology to prevent transport to and from off-limits locations. This should at least prevent the most dramatic cases of abuse, and we can think about the more benign implications.
I also assume that the transporter technology would become widely and cheaply available to everyone, just as the automobile became available to many classes of people in developed countries within a few decades. If the transporter were to remain a technology that only a few people could afford, then the effects would be less pronounced and less interesting for the purposes of my article.
Let’s begin with the implications for the world of logistics. What if we could beam any good anywhere in the world?
Obviously, this would be a boon for Amazon & Co. Instead of same-day delivery, they could offer same-moment delivery. You order something and it shows up in your living room immediately. You could also return it immediately if you did not like it. If this were possible, would you even bother to go to a real, physical store?
One scenario could be that you have a phone call with the store owner and tell him what you are looking for, say a new suit. A few minutes later, the store owner materializes in your living room, along with a few suits that might fit you. You go to your dressing room, try them on, and keep the ones you like. The shopkeeper then transports you back to his shop.
In any case, there would be no need for delivery services. A whole industry just disappeared.
A transporter could make moving so much easier. You no longer have to lift the sofa down the stairs and into a truck. Instead, you just mark the spot in your new home where you want it, and there it is. Back surgeons will be out of a job because there will be no more heavy lifting!
Or if we think even bigger, it would be possible to rethink construction – building parts are prefabricated in a factory and then simply beamed to the right place on the construction site. Think how quickly new buildings could be erected?
Manufacturing could also become much easier. The layout of factories could change completely, as the product being made is transported from one manufacturing station to another. Primary products would not need to be transported to the factory by truck, train, or ship. Instead, it could be transported from one factory to another, right to where it is needed. Just-in-time production taken to its ultimate conclusion! We could actually go one step further: The upstream product could even be manufactured at the exact moment it is needed in the next factory, instead of being stored on a truck. The distributed factories could become one big decentralized factory, working in perfect lockstep. This would open up entirely new possibilities. Factories would no longer need to plan their production weeks in advance; they could make everything on demand, as long as the raw materials were available. The amount of storage needed would be much smaller. And factory noise would be greatly reduced.
Getting to work on a crowded subway or sitting in a traffic jam is one of the least enjoyable parts of the workday. With a van, we could just skip it. Hooray! Many hours will come back to us to be used productively or to spend time with our families, our health or relaxation!
Another effect will be that we will have much more choice in where we work. Our choices for a new job will no longer be limited to companies within commuting distance. We can choose any employer in the world! So why not work for the one with the best offer? As I write below in the section on concentration, this fact could lead to ever-increasing competition for the best minds, the best employees. So it could drive up wages for the best people even more.
Another result of this change is that you can live anywhere you want. You want to live in the mountains, far away from the big cities, and still go to work every day? No problem! And since there is less need to live where you work, this will also have a big effect on the housing market. You can live wherever it is cheaper. Together with the changes in shopping culture (see above), this will change the way our cities look. We may not need the traditional city with a center of shops and offices. But I think there will still be places where people want to meet, either at work or after work. But where will they be? Now every destination is accessible. There may be a new competition among restaurant owners and shopkeepers to attract people to their establishments, which may be located in exotic places like mountaintops or remote islands.
Let’s think about the effect that beaming can have on relationships. Basically, you are no longer limited to a potential partner who lives near you. You can meet people from all over the world. Whether this is good or bad for singles, I am not sure. On the one hand, there are so many more opportunities to find your soul mate. On the other hand, because the choices are unlimited, people may feel overwhelmed and afraid of missing out on the perfect match. I think dating services will soon make a business out of these new opportunities, not only offering to meet singles from your area, but trying to match you with someone who lives anywhere on the planet!
On the other hand, if you are already in a relationship, a transporter could be really beneficial. The term “long-distance relationship” will no longer have any meaning. However, a transporter would give people new ways to cheat. We all know the image of the naked lover hiding in the closet when the husband comes home. That would not be necessary anymore – just beam out of the bedroom and the cheated husband will never find out!
And I bet it will not be long before people figure out how to have multiple relationships in parallel, perhaps all over the globe.
For many people, going on vacation to a sunny place is the ultimate vacation goal. With Transporter technology, you no longer have to go to the airport and then fly for hours in tight seats. You just hop into your transporter and get out right on the beach!
You might not even need hotels, because you could just go home after the sun goes down.
Of course, this would be a problem for hotel owners. But also for famous tourist destinations, which will become even more crowded – the natural limitation of hotel capacity will no longer be relevant. They will have to find new ways to limit access to hotspots.
One way to limit access might be a visitor fee. After all, tourists who stay only for the day will spend less on hotels and probably less on food, which will greatly reduce the income of the destination.
And why go to a crowded place at all? Destinations become crowded because they provide all the necessary infrastructure, such as hotels, restaurants, and airports. If all these factors become irrelevant, why bother to go where everyone else is going? This offers opportunities because there is less concentration of vacationers in one place. But there are also a lot of risks, because people may go to places that were previously off-limits to tourists, and then damage the natural ecosystem there.
The role of travel agencies will probably change as well. Instead of booking a hotel and a flight for you, the travel agent will book a reservation for you to go to your favorite destinations. Travel may still not be as spontaneous as it could be, but it would be much more convenient.
If you could go anywhere in the world, why bother going to anything but the best places? Why not send your kids to the best school in the world instead of the best school in town? Work for the best company in the world, not just the best one within commuting distance?
The effect of eliminating the time it takes to get from one place to another could lead to a huge concentration effect. What is already great becomes greater, what is already good becomes greater. And everything else is left behind.
If we take things that scale very well, like shopping (Amazon has shown this to scale so well!), then we could have a winner-takes-all effect. Amazon, for example, could have an almost unlimited inventory of everything. There would be even less need to visit a local store with a small selection of goods. So mom-and-pop stores are likely to suffer even more than they already have from online shopping, maybe even go out of business altogether.
Then there are other things that do not scale well. Take an elite school. It simply could not take all the students who could now easily travel to it. Since the supply would be limited and the demand would be greatly increased, the effect would be that prices would rise sharply. This means that only the extremely rich will be able to send their children to schools that even the middle class could afford before. Other schools will not die out, because the demand from students will still be there, but there will be an increasing gap in quality between the best private schools and the normal public schools.
Think about all the land we currently use to get ourselves or our goods from A to B. All the land that has been paved for roads and airports, all the track laid for railroads. If we could use a transporter instead, much of that infrastructure would fall into disrepair. I suppose we would still need some infrastructure, like roads to walk on to reach our neighbors or just to walk around. And there may be a certain percentage of people who will not want to use a transporter because they do not trust it, cannot afford it, or just want to travel the old-fashioned way (like people who take a multi-day train trip even when a plane is available). For these people, we will keep some of the infrastructure intact. Also as a fallback in case of a problem in the transportation network.
But much of the infrastructure we use today would become unnecessary. We should tear it down and reuse the land, whether for agricultural production, housing, or simply returning it to its natural state.
Impact on Businesses
I have already hinted at it: Many businesses will struggle with such a change. Airlines, shipping companies, railroads will experience a sharp drop in demand. Many of them may go bankrupt. Others may find a niche for people who still like to travel the old-fashioned way.
The same will be true for car manufacturers – maybe a few of them can survive to produce cars for leisure use, but most of the world’s car production would no longer be necessary.
Transportation companies and delivery services would no longer be needed.
All the maintenance of the transportation infrastructure would also become unnecessary.
On the other hand, new business models will emerge. There is, of course, the manufacture of transport vehicles, their operation and maintenance. And people will soon find business models based on this new technology. A wave of new startup companies will find new ways to use it. The possibilities are endless, and I cannot think of all the new business models that will be possible.
As we have seen, transporter technology would have an enormous impact on our daily lives. To prevent it from being the end of the world, we would obviously need some rules and technical limitations. But once this technology became safe for everyone to use, it would change life completely and forever all over the world. As I was writing this article, I realized how many things in our lives are determined by the time it takes to move people or things from one place to another. If we could reduce that time to zero, it could change so many things around us. From the production and delivery of goods, to the way we work (and for whom), to the relationships we will maintain. Globalization could reach a new peak, with many positive and negative effects. Our rate of land use is likely to decrease, allowing us to return much of it to nature.
And there are so many more primary, secondary, and higher-level effects that we cannot yet imagine.
In this article, I have also limited myself to beaming across our planet. Perhaps the technology, once invented, would allow us to beam to other planets in our solar system or even across the galaxy. This could have even greater implications!
Will this ever be possible? Will my speculations be put to the test at some point in the future?
Who knows. But it was fun to let my imagination run wild, and I hope you enjoyed this thought experiment as much as I did.
One last thought: If we could dematerialize objects and rematerialize them elsewhere, what would stop us from rematerializing them twice? Or a hundred, a thousand, a million times? This brings us to another famous Star Trek technology: The Replicator. What would that do to our lives? I disuss this idea in my next article.