Attention: this section contains significant plot spoilers. If you haven’t yet read the book, you might consider returning here later. –RC
Rift is an adventure story that uses the idea of radical and new technology to drive the plot. Cameron volunteers to test what he thinks is a teleportation machine, and is not so pleased when it’s revealed that he was actually cloned. In fact, the original idea occurred to me one day in 1998 while standing in front of a fax machine at work. Yes, I thought it was a pretty original idea, and yes, that was pretty naïve of me, but you know how it goes. Ignorance is bliss.
And while I enjoy reading about new ideas and theories produced by science (physics especially) anyone who shares similar interests knows that what happens to Cameron in Rift is not plausible. No real explanation is ever given about the technology behind the transmission machine because there is none–at least none that employ existing theories or technology.
But that’s not to say that all the science and technology used the in the book is fiction. Aside from the plot device of the transmission machine, I tried my best to ground the rest of the story in today’s or near-future reality. So if you’re interested, I’ll discuss here the various “scientific” ideas mentioned in the book and try to explain the difference between fact and fiction. I’m by no means an expert in any of these subjects, so if anyone out there spots conceptual errors or mistakes in my descriptions, I’d love to know so I can make the appropriate changes.
“Quantum mechanics says you can’t do the fax machine bit,” Lee says in chapter six. “.you can’t scan something closely enough to duplicate it. You disturb the information before you can extract everything you need to make the copy.”
Lee is talking here about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which states that you can’t be precisely sure about both the position and velocity of subatomic particles. This is not an intuitive idea, since we know from classical physics that the position of our planet relative to the sun, for instance, can be predicted by using direct observation and measurements. We expect that if we had good enough technology–a precise enough MRI machine, for instance–we could scan anything. But an outcome of quantum mechanics is that small particles like electrons don’t have a true position in space. That until the particle is directly observed, it could be here, or it could be there, and so on. And since observing the particle disturbs it in some small way, we can’t ever know its true position before this disturbance occurs. Hence, scanning a human being precisely enough to make an exact copy would seem to be impossible.
But not so fast. Albert Einstein was not a big fan of this loss of determinism in measurement, and in 1935, he, Boris Podolsky, and Nathan Rosen proposed an idea that became known as the EPR paradox. The EPR idea was a thought experiment that showed how changing the properties of one particle could instantaneously affect the properties of some distant, entangled particle. If quantum theory considered this a valid idea, they said, then the theory itself must be flawed or incomplete. But later experiments proved that entanglement does occur, and in 1993 a team of scientists at IBM proposed a way to use the idea to teleport particles from one location to another. More recently, physicists at the University of Innsbruck in Austria verified their ideas experimentally by teleporting photons.
But of course it’s one thing to teleport single photons and something else altogether to do it with the innumerable particles in something as complex as human. “The information transmission alone is mind boggling,” Lee says, and this is no exaggeration. In Rift the process only takes forty-five minutes, but in reality with any foreseeable technology it would take forever. Literally.
And lastly, in quantum teleportation the original particle is not left intact, so if that’s really what NeuroStor had used, there wouldn’t have been an original Cameron left behind.
For more information about quantum teleportation and entanglement, try these links:
Matter is just particles. “Quarks and leptons,” as Lee says, also in chapter six. The ability to manipulate matter at its constituent level is not very advanced at the moment, but there is no fundamental reason why we can’t do so more effectively with improved technology. Since there are only a few kinds of these elementary particles, theoretically you could break down atoms and then reconstruct them in any fashion you choose. Or extract the energy from atoms in a friendlier way than nuclear chain reaction. The possibilities of this kind of technology are endless.
Amazingly, scientists such as Ray Kurzweil believe that the exponential advance in human understanding of the world, combined with a similar advance in computing technology, will allow us to take control of matter much sooner than we might think. In the beginning computers were designed–slowly–by humans, but now we use computers to design computers, and it seems likely that technological advances will continue to come sooner and sooner. As long as we don’t destroy ourselves first.
Nanotechnology is discussed further in my second novel, The God Particle.
Untraceable phone calls
I made this up because it seemed so obvious. In the book Cameron places a call from a home computer and is able to trick the long distance router into believing he’s calling from another phone number. In case the call is being traced, of course. I probably described it wrong, and I have no idea if you can find an application to use on your personal computer. If someone out there has information on this, I would be glad to post it here.
Modern electrical devices generate electromagnetic fields, and these fields, when intercepted with very high quality equipment, can conceivably contain information about what is being viewed, printed, transmitted, etc. So it’s possible that someone outside your home or office could gather information about what’s on your computer screen without actually seeing it. TEMPEST is an acronym which stands for Telecommunications Electronics Material Protected from Emanating Spurious Transmissions. The idea behind TEMPEST is to devise shielding for computers and other electrical devices that are used to display, store, or transmit sensitive information, particularly information with national security implications.
You TEMPEST smart guys will notice that I didn’t use the term properly in the book, since TEMPEST is in fact an acronym. I’ve also recently learned that the term is somewhat obselete now anyway. These days you’re more likely to use Emissions Security, or EMSEC.
But you probably don’t have to worry about someone intercepting the electromagnetic radiation from your computer monitor. If you’re like me, you spend most of your time on ESPN.com anyway. Or writing novels. Or playing video games. And if a spy really wants to steal information from your computer that badly, he’ll probably just wait until you go to work and then break in and take your computer. Seems a little easier, doesn’t it?
NeuroStor memory technology
“NeuroStor…an information-age startup that had learned to mimic the neurological structure of the human brain to develop faster, higher-capacity digital storage devices.”
Any truth to this line in chapter one? Well, maybe. Already there are software-based neural network applications that can learn basic ideas on their own. In these applications, the network is given a set of simple rules and builds on them, sharing information and creating complex ideas out of the simple network structure.
As far as hardware, many computer scientists believe three dimensional molecular computing is feasible, and our knowledge of the human brain is growing exponentially. So is brain scanning and mathematical models of neurons and neural structures. It’s thought by some scientists that we could put together a model of how the human brain works within the next twenty-five years, in effect reverse-engineering it, except that machines are more accurate and less forgetful than our biological version. In Rift similar technology already exists, which is obviously not the case in today’s real world, but perhaps the idea isn’t as far in the future as we might think.
Check out the cool work Stephen Thaler is doing.