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July 20, 2017

Science fiction and science reality - closer than we think!

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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We humans don't invent things - though we often boast of doing so. The truth is, we discover them.

One of the most significant technological breakthroughs of the past 50 years – in which I was proud to be a contributor, along with thousands of others – was the discovery that a handful of sand could be transformed into a microchip.

And by supplying power to it, one could store and process incredible amounts of information within its tiny physical dimensions. This discovery has led to a myriad of other amazing things, like talking to someone anywhere on the planet, while seeing them in real time.

Microchip technology is indeed one of today’s marvellous science realities.

Let us move now to a concept that is still in the realm of science fiction.

Our brains contain the “we” of humanity; that is, our unique personalities, comprising for each of us the imprints of faith, memory, emotions, knowledge, images, sounds, smells, tactile experiences, dreams, as well as our appreciation of beauty, love and pleasure, among numerous other distinctive traits.

All these attributes are in a constant state of change every second of our lives, being activated, processed and stored in some 100 billion neurons interconnected with billions and billions of synapses.

To stay alive and healthy, the brain is attached to something called a body; its main functions are to keep the brain alive, to protect it in a temperature-controlled and weatherproof container, and to generate energy enabling it to process and store information.

But there is one huge disadvantage to this otherwise ideal relationship. As the body ages, so does the brain. Over time, its ability and reliability in preserving the “we” deteriorates. And when the body dies, the brain dies as well.

Now let’s imagine that at the moment of death the vast database of “we” in our brain is transformed into different, still-living cells that do not need a physical body to keep them alive, nor to power them.

For that to happen, however, the whole universe would have to be replaced by an alternate one with no days and nights, no need for solar energy, no need for plants, or gravity, and – most important – no devolution, entropy, aging. In such an imaginary environment, the “we” of our uniqueness could evolve into other beings. Let’s call them the “New We”; immortals, living forever.

Could such a transformation ever become science reality? Yes, I believe it can.

For people of faith it is one vision of the reality of the Hereafter, because this is all about discovery, not invention.

What’s the difference? It is this: “Discovery” is about what is possible, using a set of natural laws governing this universe (or the next one), while “Invention” is about creation from nothing – which, for humans, is impossible.

To emphasize how close the “New We” is to becoming science reality, here is a recent news story.

On July 14, 2017 the BBC reported: “Chinese scientists say they have ‘teleported’ a photon particle from the ground to a satellite orbiting 1,400 km (870 miles) away.”

The report then asked, “For many, however, teleportation evokes something much more exotic. Is a world previously confined to science fiction now becoming reality? Well, sort of. But we are not likely to be beaming ourselves to the office or a beach in the Bahamas anytime soon.”

Teleportation is the process of transmitting the state of a thing, rather than sending the physical thing itself.

The BBC report continues: “Some physicists give the example of a fax machine – it sends information about the marks on a piece of paper, rather than the paper itself. The receiving fax machine gets the information and applies it to raw material in the form of paper that is already there.”

Teleportation relies on a phenomenon known as “quantum entanglement.”

And of course, the BBC asks: “What is quantum entanglement? Indeed. The phenomenon arises when two particles are created at the same time and place and so effectively have the same existence.

“This entanglement continues even when the photons are then separated. It means that if one of the photons changes, the other photon in the other location changes too.

“Prof. Sandu Popescu, from Bristol University, has been working on quantum entanglement since the 1990s. ‘Even then people were thinking about Star Trek. But we are talking about sending the state of a single particle, not the billions of billions of billions of particles that form a person’, he says. ‘If you are thinking about a remote planet, first you would have to exchange billions of entangled pairs of particles and then you have to send other information as well. This is highly non-trivial. One should not get excited by that.’

“How do I teleport a particle? Let’s go back to our two entangled particles. If a third particle interacts with the first entangled particle, the change that occurs in the entangled particle is mirrored in its twin.

“So the twin contains information about the third particle and effectively takes on its existence. Sounds great, what’s the problem?

“It has been impossible to create a long-distance link between two entangled particles because an entangled photon can only travel about 150 km down a fiber-optic channel before becoming absorbed.

“Researchers have long seen the potential of a satellite link because photons can travel more easily through space, but it has been difficult to transmit them through the earth’s atmosphere – varying atmospheric conditions can deviate the particles.”

So the BBC has given us a glimmer of the future, just not the immediate future. And in terms of cosmic scale, the science reality of a “New We” could not be far behind. See you then!

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry, FRSC, FCAE, FIEEE, FEIC, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Engineering, University of Waterloo; Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

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