Why We'll Probably Never Be Able To Respawn In Real Life

You're running out of ammo, the last medikit you saw was three towns behind, and that nice guy shooting at you just got a sniper to help him out. Without divine intervention and after that nice guy gets a lucky shot (and why wouldn't he?), you (or what's left of you) are probably headed to the nearest respawn point. And just like that, within the game, Pum! Your character appears out of nowhere.

Save points are a bit different. Usually, in games that allow you to save at any moment (ie: Deus Ex: Human Revolution-–and I'm glad it lets us!), you just reappear in the same exact spot with the same exact gear you had.

Other games save when a big boss battle is coming up or when you choose to save (e.g. Serious Sam 3 BFE), and you just reappear on the point where you saved.

Saving a game and respawning is something that happens outside of the world of the game; the player is conscious of this, but the character is not, thus breaking the fourth wall. But there are exceptions to this rule, and Borderlands is one of them. So, how could one imagine a respawn point working?

The physics of respawning

In Borderlands, there are New-U stations that "store the character DNAagainst the possibility of accidental death or dismemberment" and can"digistruct"an entirely new body to replace the recently deceased one, a hand-wavey way to explain how the game save works.

We're going to discuss a bit of physics in this article, but thinking about an action game, being completely faithful to the laws of physics would be a bit boring. For example, if you die, you die, and that's the end, as long as our knowledge of the laws of physics goes!

New-U stations save the game when the character walks within range of it. We will get into the physics of the matter (if you pardon the pun), but just the idea of explaining why a character can reappear is interesting. There's even a tunnel when you're being brought back and an associated cost of 7 per cent of your character's funds! It can be a lot from the player's perspective, but that's just pocket change considering you are actually "reconstructing" a character.

In a nutshell, New-U stations use solid light to digistruct a person, weapons from holsters, even cars. Therefore, the DNA explanation mentioned above is not sufficient. When you are reconstructed from a New-U station, the character returns with all its weapons, ammunition, clothes, etc. So if the New-U station stored only DNA, it would be a bit hard to reconstruct stuff that doesn't have DNA to begin with — think back-in-time-terminator-naked style. There's also the use of another term, "solid light," that is an actual scientific term, but again applied in a science fiction way, in a sense of light transforming into matter.

So how would a more physics-based "reconstruction" work?

Making a "new you" (who's exactly like your "old you")

Lawrence Krauss (a fantastic physicist and writer) did some calculations on a similar problem, the transporter from Star Trek. There are other issues that Krauss discusses, but the physics of acquiring the data from the object and reconstructing it would be similar. Krauss even goes into a deeper philosophical question: are human beings only the sum of their atoms? Is there something else that makes us human, besides matter? It's a very interesting question, but one that we will not delve into. So we're going to stick with physics questions: how much information would one need to store in order to recreate a human being? How do you acquire this information? And how much energy is needed to do so?

The average human body is composed of 1x1028 atoms.

To be able to reconstruct it from a stored pattern, first this pattern must be stored, of course. But how would one go about doing that? The scanner would have to acquire the position and momentum of all atoms, without displacing them. It would need to determine the type of atom that you're scanning, too. It also would have to do it very quickly, taking into account that the character probably wouldn't be standing still. And here quantum mechanics shows to start spoiling the fun, with its pesky Heisenberg principle.

The Heisenberg principle states that, independent of the measure apparatus or future technologies, there are certain combinations of measures that are impossible to be made with arbitrary precision.

For example, it is possible to determine very precisely the position of a subatomic particle — like an electron — but not the momentum at the same time, and vice versa, or the state that the particle is, but not how long the particle will stay in that state.

So for our "scanner beam" to be able to selectively "lock" on a particular atom (which would be a feat on its own) and acquire its information, would disturb that same atom from its present state, somewhat irreversibly. It gets even worse, since, if we need to increase the precision of the beam to get a higher resolution, more energy would be needed, and the more that poor atom would be disturbed. And all that would be done within seconds!

To keep going, let's now assume that this scanner beam works. How much space would be needed to store all this information?

But where would we store all this?

We would need to store not only the position and velocity of each atom, but also its energetic state, whether it's making a bond with other atoms, the vibrational and rotational states, etc.

In physics, each of these pieces of information is called a degree of freedom, and a system is determined if all the degrees of freedom can be defined.

Let's say that we can store all the degrees of freedom of all the atoms. Let's take an educated guess and say that all the degrees of freedom of one atom can be described by 5kB. While we're at it, let's also take into account the weapons and stuff that you carry on that giant backpack, and say that we need to store 1x1029 atoms.

That would give us 5 x 1029 kilobytes, or 50000 yottabytes of information to be stored (and retrieved!) in a few seconds.

Given the world's current supply of hard drives, we couldn't get a single yottabyte. There are some recent calculations (using theBekenstein limit)that estimate the information needed to describe a human being to be around 1x1044 bytes, considering the maximum amount of information given using a finite amount of energy in a finite region of space, which happens to be larger than our previous estimate.

You died! What happens now?

You died, fini, caput, so the New-U station needs to reconstruct you. We got a nice blueprint of 50000 yottabytes with all your information.

First problem: we need the atoms! It shouldn't be a big deal for themore commonones, like oxygen (65 per cent, in mass), carbon (18 per cent in mass) and hydrogen (10 per cent in mass).

Things start to get a bit more problematic with the rare earth ones, even uranium and beryllium, so each New-U station would have to have an "atoms stock" to be able to reconstruct a character. And remember, there's also all the weapons… It seems that the weapons are recreated from scratch when the character is recreated, but dematerialised to "hard light" when the character is not using it.

But wait! It gets even more complicated…

So far, we only dealt with atomic level problems, considering that only saving the atoms themselves and not its constituents is necessary.

Each atom is composed by some number of nucleons (protons and neutrons) and electrons, and a lot of empty space. Really, a lot: more than 99 per cent of the mass of the atom is at its centre, where the nucleons are, but the size of the nucleous is 10000 smaller that the atom itself.

What prevents things falling through other things is the electric field, or the repulsion of the electric field by equal charges. Chemical bonds are formed to minimise the energy, but getting the atoms together can be a bit tricky, exactly because of that electric repulsion.

There are also reactions that need energy to start and keep going, and others liberate energy when the chemical bonds are formed from the free elements. How much energy? We will have to simplify greatly here: some chemical reactions liberate energy, while others absorb it, so it's not only a problem of putting everything together, but also putting or removing the right amount of energy in the right order.

After seeing the enormous amount of information that would need to be scanned and stored, the energy and materials that would be needed and with all the difficulties that physics presents us, it's not like we would see a New-U on the corner anytime soon (or ever), but the possibilities for understanding the science behind the possible processes is very interesting. There are some fundamental physical barriers and others that are more technological. But nonetheless, not breaking the fourth wall is awesome and talking physics about a game is always awesome.

And all this for only 7 per cent of your funds!

Ivan is a computational physicist and postdoctoral fellow at Laval University and science media consultant for Thwacke Consulting. For more follow Thwacke on Twitter and Facebook!


    Great article, thanks! But I think it's more interesting to think about it from a practical point of view rather than "if it worked exactly like in a game".

    The entire purpose of having the ability to "respawn" in the future would be to protect you if you died. Why on earth would you need to scan all the atoms in a persons body to do that? That's so wasteful! A much more sensible possibility for the very rich in the far future, would be to simply have vat grown clones of yourself stored in a facility - they could be grown in advance when you first signed up for the respawn insurance. Every day as you sleep, a scanner would read your brain and store your brain state (memories etc) and then if you died, this would be uploaded to one of your clones. You wouldn't have any memory of the accident which killed you, you'd just wake up the next morning at the cloning facility and be told that you had died the previous day.

    This is assuming the technology would exist to read and write to a human brain, which brings with it all sorts of crazy possibilities. But the storage problem wouldn't be nearly as extreme, and the scanning speed could be more reasonable as the brain scanner could only update the changes to your brain state since the previous scan.

    Also, the Heisenberg principle wouldn't apply as we're not scanning individual atoms, but rather neurons at a cellular level - close enough is good enough. Even if there's a few errors in there, if you're alive when you should be dead, does it really matter if you have to relearn how to tie your shoelaces?

    The REAL issue with all of this, and with teleportation, is that you wouldn't actually be alive at all, there'd just be a clone of you with your memories that gets to live on. From the perspective of the person walking out of the teleporter (or the clone in the respawn facility), it all worked as it should and it's one continuous existence. But the person who walked into the teleporter will have their existence cut short at the moment of teleportation.

    That is what terrifies me about teleportation. A person would go through and come out the other end, and you'd ask them "Are you okay?" and they'd be like "Yep! It works, I'm still myself and everything is fine!"... but they'd only say that because they don't know any better. Just like when you copy and paste a file from one harddrive to another, from the users perspective it's the same file... but the file itself has actually been murdered and replaced.

    Last edited 22/01/13 11:41 am

      Somebody out there who believes the same thing. I like the idea of teleportation for objects and other non-living matter but I would never go through one for the above reasons. It will walk, talk and think like you but it wont be you but as far as outsides are concerned it is you but the real you died getting ripped apart at the entrance. The impossible thing is that how can you prove this otherwise? If somebody goes through they'll say everything is peachy, however if you go through and 'die' in the process you other copy is going to say it's all peachy too.

      The only way I could see around this problem is if we operate in a remote capacity ala. Avatar. Brain in a jar that's connected to a remote host that is you. Host shell dies but you live on. Generate another host shell and reconnect and off you go.

      If only we could digitise a brain and find existence of a 'ghost'...

      Last edited 22/01/13 2:15 pm

    'The average human body is composed of 1×1028 atoms."
    i assume the super-script didnt work and this is 1x10^28, which implies we have 16,600 moles of atoms in us. cool.

    i'd completely give up 7% of my money for a respawn...

      thank you for clearing that up, I knew it was obviously wrong but wasn't sure where exactly it would be corrected.

    You would have to assume if the technology ever came about that we wouldn't be respawning ourselves as ourselves. More likely you would be putting your mind and possibly your facial features into a stock body, so the only information required for storage would be the brain and facial data.

    The brain would obviosuly still take great leaps and bounds in tech to be able to make carbon copies of, but the facial information is already able to be stored and recreated through plastic surgery. Flash your brain to a computer, it writes a brain like its a DVD-R, cuts up a "standard face" to look like you and boom, New U

    Last edited 22/01/13 12:30 pm

      That's a good point. I wonder if humanity will ever get to the stage where we improve on the organic building blocks of life and replace them entirely with synthetic substitutes that are better in every way. We would create digital brains (or perhaps qbit based) that would store our information, continuously storing our minds in the cloud in case anything happened to us, and we would live in completely artificial bodies without ever having to deal with sickness or death. We could swap out the bodies depending on the environment we were in (different planets/atmospheres.gravities) and going on a 10000 year space trip to another planet wouldn't be unreasonable as we would be eternal. We wouldn't be replaced by the machines ala Terminator or the Matrix, we would become the machines.

    I was thinking about something like this the other day both after playing Borderlands, and after watching the new Star Trek movie, but think I've managed to confuse myself. Can anyone who's either studied medicine, psychology, or philosophy explain this to me?

    Scenario 1:
    A person travels from Earth to Mars via a spaceship almost instantaneously. He is obviously the same person as the person who was on Earth.

    Scenario 2:
    A person uses a teleporter to disassemble his atoms and brain impulses on Earth, and reassemble his atoms and brain impulses on Mars. Has the 'Earth' version been killed and replaced by an exact duplicate with the same memories on Mars? Or is it the same person, with the same consciousness, and it is just as if they flew there like in Scenario 1?

    Scenario 3:
    A person uses a teleporter as in Scenario 2, but there was an error in the process. His atoms and brain impulses were measured and assembled on Mars, but there was no disassembly. Now, there are two of the same person, with the same consciousness, yet are not the same person? How can a consciousness - which if you don't believe in duality - that has the exact same physical structure be a different consciousness, unless there's something beyond atoms and brain impulses that makes a person 'them'?

    I know to a lot of people, this is probably Philosophy 101, but I couldn't wrap my head around it.

      I think it depends on your definition of consciousness, or the feeling that we are a driver looking out of the windows of our eyes and that consciousness is separate from our body. I think that consciousness is an illusion caused by the way our brain is wired up - It is just the flow of information through the connections in our brain. So in scenario 2, the disassembled consciousness is destroyed along with the body/brain, and the 'teleported' being has an entirely new consciousness.

      Scenario 3 is the same, with two identical people existing with 2 entirely separate 'consciousnesses'. The same physical structure can be a different consciousness the same way the same order of byte information in a computer can be a different file, or the same way identical twins are two different people - even if they were atom for atom the same, they would still be two different and separate consciousnesses, they are separate because the atoms are separate.

      It's hard to wrap your head around if you believe in a soul, or if you think that the brain allows the presence of something called a consciousness rather than the physical brain actually being the consciousness - use the word brain instead of consciousness and it becomes easier. Consciousness is a very strong illusion and it's very hard to think of yourself in this purely physical way.

      ...or just go and watch The Prestige.

        I think it depends on your definition of consciousness, or the feeling that we are a driver looking out of the windows of our eyes and that consciousness is separate from our body. I think that consciousness is an illusion caused by the way our brain is wired up - It is just the flow of information through the connections in our brain. So in scenario 2, the disassembled consciousness is destroyed along with the body/brain, and the 'teleported' being has an entirely new consciousness.

        Then when comparing Scenario 2 with Scenario 1, if Scenario 2 has a 'new driver', yet is physically identical in every way, what is the driver comprised of. Or;

        Body + ConsciousnessX != Body + ConsciousnessY; then what are X and Y comprised of if not Body?

        I'm not arguing in favour of a soul, but surely there's something that makes 'me' me, and 'you' you that's beyond atoms and energy?

          Yeah it's a bit of a brain twister. I personally don't believe there's anything apart from atoms that makes you 'you'. So for me, there's no body + consciousness, there's just body. Your brain is part of your body the same way your heart or your arm bone is, so it's all just body. And that body is you, it is who you are. You can't say "my body" as if you own a body that is separate from you, you are your body and nothing more.

          It's like if a person has a stroke, or some brain injury, and their personality can dramatically change, or their memories, or their cherished beliefs. It can even change their awareness of themselves and the world: their sentience and sense of self. To the point where enough physical damage to parts of a brain can wipe out a person completely and just leave behind an automated body. A shell without a brain.

          So in Scenario 2, there is no 'new driver' because there's no such thing as a driver, or rather, the brain itself is the driver. So the teleported man has a brain and will behave accordingly, giving the appearance to everybody, including himself, that he is conscious.

          Last edited 22/01/13 2:54 pm

    Science might one day be able to reconstruct a body. Maybe even imprint memories. But it will never be able to save a soul.

    No one has mentioned compression yet. Surely if we're at the point that we can store information about our clone or brain patterns, we'll have efficient compression algorithms for encoding the data along with some fancy error correction checksums. My clone might be stored as MP3NA with BIOCRC.

    there is a RPG called eclipse phase that is exactly what you are talking about except it not just clones you can install your mind to a new shell, not always human shaped :)

    I'd think it work along the lines of teleportation physics, in the sense that one side destroys you and the other rebuilds you if you were able to capture an imprint on the teleporting system you could potently create a copy. i am in no way a physicist what I've said is probably wrong in every way but......just a though

    Last edited 23/01/13 9:17 am

    this ties in very well

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