Science Fiction & FantasyDoes any science-fiction handle the ethics of teleportation ("kill and clone")?
[+34] [15] Reinstate Monica - Goodbye SE
[2011-02-21 08:36:37]
[ star-trek teleportation morality ]
[ ]

There are various ideas [1] behind teleportation but the top two seem to be:

  1. Disassemble someone and transport the exact person (matter / energy) to a new location and reassemble.
  2. Clone someone at a new location (different matter) and destroy the original (or destroy the original first and then create the clone).

The difference I am making here is that in the first case the person ( whatever that is [2]) is transported whereas in the second case a duplicate lives on and the original is killed.

My main question is: does any science-fiction deal with this apparently ethical issue (suicide and cloning)?

In Star Trek for example, the second option seems usually to be the norm as evidenced by a character like Thomas Riker [3]. However, the first option was also seen once in the Realm of Fear [4] episode when Reg Barclay [5] retains consciousness during transportation. But I am not aware of any episode which deals with the ethics.

A related question: would anyone really be able to tell the difference between these two methods?

(1) Covered this topic in a Philosophy of Mind module at university. It was a great thought experiment, but I can't remember any conclusive outcome on your related question. - StuperUser
@StuperUser - thanks for the reply. Shame, I'd love to have heard the outcome! - Reinstate Monica - Goodbye SE
(3) I don't think that your related question is all that clear, or even on-topic. You should move it to its own question and further elaborate on it there. - Borror0
(14) Watch 'The Prestige'. It's a movie about magicians who are doing a magic trick called the "Transported Man". (Also it has David Bowie portraying Nikola Tesla) (I realize this probably falls under fantasy and not strictly sci-fi) - Poindexter
(1) I have thought about this before. I think the clone would not notice the difference, and might not even realize they are a clone. The original person would never see the other side. Not a good idea. - JD Isaacks
(4) @Wikis: This question attracts a long list of answers, which is strongly discouraged. - user56
(1) The difference is that if teleporter 1 malfunctions, you aren't transported or you die. If teleporter 2 malfunctions, you're cloned or you die. There is a large body of SF around the issue of devices that look like teleporters but in fact might make copies (perhaps even delayed copies, by keeping a log of everything that goes through them). - user56
(1) @Giles - according to the most highly voted answer (by @Dori) on the link you provided, this question is to be "Are Google-able questions appropriate?"; and Jeff's answer implies that this question is OK. Furthermore, @Borror0's great answer here also seems to OK this:… - Reinstate Monica - Goodbye SE
@Borror0 - bit late getting back to you (sorry) but the related question is probably off-topic, as you imply. So I didn't add it separately. - Reinstate Monica - Goodbye SE
The ST implementation of a transporter also goes around this ethical issue. It takes the person's "matter stream" and shoots it through subspace before re-materializing. So there is always 1 person (even if they are disassembled for a few seconds). - Teknophilia
(2) @Teknophilia - that's what I used to think - but then what about Thomas Riker? - Reinstate Monica - Goodbye SE
(4) This is a list question fitting neatly into the “What kind of questions should I not ask here?” part of the FAQ, in particular “every answer is equally valid” and “your answer is provided along with the question, and you expect more answers”. It's steadily attracting newer answers citing yet another work. So my finger is twitching over the close button. Is there any reason I shouldn't press it? - user56
What would be an interesting story is about a teleportation machine that claims to delete the original, but is actually keeping them somewhere else, for evil(?) purposes. - Arturo Torres Sánchez
(1) Have you seen the Doctor Who episode Heaven Sent? - Rand al'Thor
(1) I think this is too broad as is since it's essentially asking for a list, but the standard workaround for this is to ask which science fiction work came first. - Null
Why is this question suddenly getting attention? I don't see it in any lists. (I voted to re-open - did that position it somewhere?) - Reinstate Monica - Goodbye SE
[+17] [2011-02-21 12:31:26] Dima [ACCEPTED]

It took me a few minutes to remember where I saw it, but there it is. An episode of the Outer Limits called Think Like a Dinosaur [1] has dealt with exactly this question. It is based on a novelette by the same name by James Patrick Kelly.

This issue is also mentioned in Ilium/Olympos by Dan Simmons, where the Earth is covered by a network of "fax nodes", which can instantaneously "fax" a copy of a person to another node, destroying the original.


(1) I remember reading that story in "The Year's Best Science Fiction: Thirteenth Annual Collection". I haven't seen the Outer Limits episode. - user296
(1) +1 - thought of that episode when I read the question title. - TZHX
(1) Finally I have an incentive to read Ilium. Thanks for that. (Background: I enjoyed the Hyperion Cantos enormously and lacked the courage to read any other Simmons novels out of fear that they couldn’t live up to it. But the teleportation issue is interesting enough to change my mind.) - Konrad Rudolph
@Konrad Rudolph the Ilium/Olympos dilogy is excellent. Just as good as the Hyperion Cantos, IMHO. Teleportation is actually a fairly minor theme there. - Dima
[+15] [2011-02-21 17:08:18] Teknophilia

The Prestige IMDb [1] - Wikipedia (spoiler) [2]


The "magician" teleports himself every night, but also has to kill himself (or rather, his previous copy) every time. That is, the teleporter doesn't really move him, it makes an exact copy, and he kills his "old" self every time.


(2) The 'killing himself' bit was added in the movie. Scroll to teleporter accident in the TVtropes page for the details. - Tobu
(3) Please note that this is a huge spoiler if you've never seen the film. :) - Brian Ortiz
(1) Why doesn't he simply make an army of himself? :) - Mateen Ulhaq
[+13] [2011-02-21 15:39:22] Timwi

There is actually an episode of Star Trek Enterprise — Daedalus ( on Memory Alpha [1]; on Wikipedia [2]) that briefly mentions this in passing. The inventor of the transporter is quoted as saying that he had to defend himself against ethical philosophers who claimed the transporter cloned and killed people “and other rubbish like that” (paraphrasing). The topic is quickly dropped and the characters appear to consider the point academic at best, but don’t see a real ethical issue with the transporter.


(4) It's also addressed in, if I recall correctly, First Contact, when Zefram Cochrane is horrified by the transporter, assuming it must be a kill-and-clone mechanism, and it's explained to him that that isn't the case because of quantum technobabble. - chaos
(1) @chaos: If what the transporter does what it is claimed to, it isn't technobabble. Particles in the same quantum state are indistinguishable from each other, they are the same particle. So a complete duplication of yourself on the quantum level would be you in all the same logical ways that the initial one was you. - DampeS8N
[+8] [2011-02-21 19:14:24] JohnWinkelman

In China Mieville [1]'s novel Kraken [2],

one of the characters can teleport. He doesn't realize until much later that it is of the kill-and-clone variety, when he suddenly finds himself haunted by the ghosts of all his previously teleported selves. Mind you, this had been his primary mode of transportation for many years. The ethical dilemma comes in when he finds himself stuck in situations where he still needs to teleport himself and his friends.


[+7] [2011-02-21 22:41:12] Tobu

Charles Stross's Glasshouse deals with a related dilemma, the loss of control involved by transporter gates. Such gates break down the transported into information, and have the opportunity to rewrite it. The end result forms the background of the novel: a war was waged, and no one remembers why.

[+6] [2011-02-21 15:31:42] RomanSt

If you strive for correctness according to our best understanding of our universe, then the question is moot. It's a meaningless word manipulation. Removing someone at one location and creating an exact (to quantum limitations) copy elsewhere is no different in any definable way to someone moving 10 metres by walking.

More on Quantum Mechanics and Personal Identity [1] at LessWrong.

Trying to define a distinction between the two is explained as an artifact of our thinking process in this posting [2], also at LessWrong.


(4) If the copying process is independent of the destruction process---as in the story Dima suggests---this argument fails. - dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten
(1) @dmckee true; this argument fails in any universe that doesn't intend to be exactly like ours. - RomanSt
For the purposes of ethical pondering it doesn't matter if it's possible or not. If that bothers you on the sf/fantasy level, the author just needs to posit some totally new principle. Not that I expect a totally new principle, but that's why it would be new. - dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten
(1) @romkyns: I'm not so impressed with its applicability to this one. Sciencey arguments that essentially tell me that my subjective experience doesn't exist need to be categorized on TVTropes under YouFailDescartesForever. - chaos
@dmckee,@chaos Yes, and yes. If you feel strongly enough about this answer not fitting the question, by all means downvote it. I promise no hard feelings; I myself downvote all the time. - RomanSt
-1: " different in any definable way..." It is entirely definable when the someone being copied is me. +2billion years of evolution definitely causes a visceral reaction when I face my own termination. Knowing that an exact copy of me - that will not be me - exists elsewhere is little comfort. - user296
@Binary I don't think you read or understood any of those linked posts. Yes, this is an intuitive reaction of any human. It is as wrong as things can be. - RomanSt
(1) @romkyns: I haven't seen those sources, but am aware of the concepts. They're all well and good (and provable, even if I don't personally understand the math & physics involved), and yes they reflect the reality that is. However, my point is that because we are animals, you cannot just ignore the visceral reaction. I'm all for rationality - believe me, I argue for it all the freaking time however we must also acknowledge - at some level - our instinctive imperatives. For me I draw the line at teleportation, I don't think I would ever choose to travel by teleporter. - user296
(1) @Binary I see your point of view, but don't you think the same arguments can be used to rationalise anything? If you're all for rationality you might at least try to suppress the irrational visceral reaction. After all, everyone's visceral reaction is "I'd flipped heads ten times in a row; the next time MUST ABSOLUTELY be a tails, right? I'm betting my house on it. Oh... What do you mean it's independent?!" - RomanSt
(1) @romkyns: "the same arguments can be used to rationalise anything?". Yes they can, and can be used to rationalise things like racism and child abuse. This is why I say "at some level", and I think that "facing personal termination" is a perfectly valid level to start listening to my baser animal instincts. I can rationally "know" that the copy of me on Mars is me in every way, however for some length of time there will be two sets of atoms with the same quantum state in two different places. This means the me here is aware of another me on Mars. You could decide to think of it (cont) - user296
(1) ... as "I am also on Mars". However, the longer I am both on Earth and on Mars, the harder it is to convince ones self of that, as both of me continue on different paths we diverge into different entities, each of us having a him and a me. The instant the two sets of atoms stop having the same quantum state is when the him and me split happens. The me on earth is still facing some sort of termination, isn't it perfectly reasonable for that me to want to survive? - user296
[+6] [2011-02-23 22:14:13] Michael Scott Shappe

Within the context of Star Trek, James Blish wrote one of the earliest original Trek novels using questions of transporter ethics as part of the plot: Spock Must Die [1].


[+4] [2011-02-21 17:55:01] MBP

Take a look at the opening chapters of Derik Parfit's "Reasons and Persons." Now, granted, this is a philosophy work (and an important one too!) but in his discussions of personal identity he starts with a science fiction thought experiment about the ethics of teleportation.

He draws a distinction between two cases, and asks for our ethical intuitions in both. In the first, the killing and copying is successful--the copy exists on Mars, and the killing occurs on Earth. In the second case, something goes awry with the killing. The copying works successfully (there's a perfect copy of the original person on Mars) but the "original" is stuck on Earth with 5 weeks to live. The doctor tells him--"Don't worry, your identity is preserved on Mars." Should that comfort you?

[+3] [2011-02-24 16:58:10] apoorv020

I don't know about the ethics, but there is an observable difference between the two methods. The second method would allow people to have multiple clones by storing the entity that was killed. Also, the cloned copies would not be aware that they are clones or that there are multiple copies of them floating around. Such issues figure in the sci-fi movie sixth day and in Pathfinder (2010 novel by Orson Scott Card, writer of Ender's game).

[+2] [2011-03-09 21:34:58] Jeff Cuscutis

Jack Williamson and Frederick Pohl have this in their Saga of Cuckoo [1] books. Teleportation only makes a copy and leaves the original behind. you have cases where multiple copies of someone are floating around.

I also remember reading some Star Trek/star Wars fanfic that has the people from the Star Wars universe, force sensitives especially, horrified by the transporter.


[+2] [2011-03-22 12:09:57] PålOliver

The closest thing I can remember seeing is the episode on ST Voyager episode 24 in the second season, where the combined matter streams from Tuvok and Neelix were combined into a new being having characteristics of both crew members. This being is then nicknamed Tuvix.

The episode do dwell on the ethical problem of "killing" Tuvix in order to "revive" the original crew members.

[+1] [2011-03-11 07:58:06] user1160

Afaik all transports in Star Trek are of the "disassemble and reconstruct"-type. How else could several people in the series/films be "lost" in transport and die?

If the "copy and erase"-type was used then it would be best to first do the copy, and then erase the original. If something fails then don't erase the original or just retry the transport by creating another copy.

Clearly, the intention is that there is only one copy of every person and either the transport goes well, or the person dies (or is jammed in a buffer somewhere for reasons of improving the story line of the episode ;) )

(2) the existence of Thomas Riker implies "copy and erase". - Reinstate Monica - Goodbye SE
@Wikis no it doesn't. See this article and the linked Confinement Beam article. Thomas was created by them trying to make a backup of him during transport to ensure they successfully beamed Riker aboard. - user1027
@Keen - thanks for the links, but then where did Thomas Riker's atoms come from? Suggest we discuss this further in chat, rather than adding too much here. - Reinstate Monica - Goodbye SE
The transporter confinement beam. - user1027
[+1] [2011-03-26 12:35:19] Talvalin

Yes. Algis Budry's novel Rogue Moon deals with this exact dilemma, albeit not as its central theme. From its wikipedia page [1]:

Hawks has created a matter transmitter, one which makes a copy of a person or object at the receiver. Hawks is thus able to create duplicates of men on the Moon. The earthbound original is placed in a state of sensory deprivation which allows him to share the experiences of the doppelgänger. However, none of the participants have been able to stay sane after experiencing death second hand.

It's a good book though written in that period when men were real men and women were merely things to have sex with. It's more interesting to read it to see how Alastair Reynolds developed his Diamond Dogs novella from the basis of Rogue Moon but taking it in a different direction.


[+1] [2011-03-27 05:56:02] aramis

None of these is exactly on point, but... here are several that are somewhat close.

The Vorkosigan series (Lois Bujold) has a whole lot on cloning ethics, but lacks memory transfer, teleportation, forced growth to maturity, and mind-into-machine transfer.

We see a number of reproductive issues in the series; the most on target, however, is in the novel Memory.

In that novel, we see an attempt to stop a cloning and brain-dumping ring... Old wealthy folks have a clone grown, taking 10-14 years to get a body roughly about age 18-20 maturity, then have their brains transplanted into the bodies. It's considered unethical, but since it's being done in Jackson's Whole, a lawless place run by mobsters of the most unethical sort, it's a non-issue legally there. And since the clone is, in fact, a DNA-identical body, and the brain is in fact intact, that leaves only a few other biometrics to render them not themselves legally.

Bug Life Chronicles (Phillip C. Jenings) touches on the same issue, but in the aspect of downloading one's personality into artificial bodies, or "bugs." The process is destructive, however, to the personality in the body.

Jennings implies that, for all purposes on this plane, it seems to make no difference. At least not to the individuals. They can even return to other's discarded bodies. The implication is that the soul is a transferable item... that affixes to the consciousness and memory patterns.

The Car Wars board/role-playing† game also specifically deals with the issue of a clone with a downloaded set of memories...

Without memories, a forced growth clone is mindless. Memories can be transfered from a live body to a suspended clone (but they degrade after a month in storage), or from a memory storage device, roughly the size of a large coffin. In the case of a forced growth clone being activated prior to the death of its memory donor, both individuals have a psychotic urge to kill each other as long as both clone and donor are alive, once they become aware of the other. It's clear from the rules that (1) the clone has no personality prior to memory transfer unless it's only grown normal human speed (2) it's possible to activate a clone with memories, and the person thinks they are, in fact, themself, unless they find out that the original them is alive.

The Battlestations! board/role-playing† game notes that a forced growth clone simply fails to activate until the original dies; the soul isn't created by the body being extant. It also has transporters... the exact method of transporter is left undefined, but is functionally

† Both CW and BS are sold as board games, but have more roleplaying-oriented rules than many early role-playing games, and extensive background material. Both also had Role-play focused adventures released.

[+1] [2011-03-27 09:56:25] Hans Kesting

Clifford Simak, Way Station (1963): the main character is station master for an interstellar teleport network. This operates in a "copy and destroy" mode: information is sent to the next station where a new body is constructed. The remaining (dead) body is destroyed.