Once belonging to fantasy, some of the medical tools seen in science fiction stories are now on the verge of being real – if they aren’t already.
From Star Trek to Reality
The little Santiago girl has lost consciousness. Face pale and tense, her mother lays her on the Medical Pod. Her situation is dire. Her only hope lies in the hands of this incredible machine. Once it recognizes her, it scans the child’s body end to end. That’s enough to diagnose her with leukemia, whose symptoms are starting to appear. On a second sweep, the machine administers a barrage of frequencies and atoms, after which the child suddenly feels better. This all takes place in a few seconds, short enough for the film Elysium to make viewers daydream about the future of medical devices.
This extraordinary system figures among several medical devices imagined by science fiction authors, the most famous of which is Mr. Spock’s tricorder in Star Trek. This little tool, no bigger than an iPad mini, lets you scan a body and instantly diagnose an illness. For something as simple as a cold, you just brush it across your forehead and temples to get a verdict. Although the idea puts fear into the wallets of the medical industry, the tricorder is the first medical device to have crossed the border from science fiction to reality. Today, it’s the first fundamental step toward creating, someday, a system as spectacular as the Medical Pod.
In December 2011, the tricolor was the focus of a contest organized by the foundation XPRIZE, in partnership with the mobile technology specialist Qualcomm. Five years later, on April 12, 2017, the Tricorder XPRIZE handed a $2.5 million check to Final Frontier Medical Devices, a team from Pennsylvania that had succeeded, after four years of dogged work, to create its own tricorder, since renamed DxtER. Before this finale, a bitter competition had taken place in secret over the course of years.
Everything started in 2010, with clear directives from XPRIZE: “Teams will be expected to meet baseline standards of accuracy and functionality, but the winning entries will be the ones that score the highest across disease diagnostics, vital signs [pulse, blood pressure, and body pressure], and consumer experience.” In other words, the teams had to materialize Spock’s precious fictional device.
Created in 2013, the Final Frontier team (comprised of employees from Basil Leaf Technologies) were determined to follow the criteria to the letter. To do it, each team member was assigned a specific task. Basil Harris was the project leader, George Harris took on the technological aspect, Andrew Singer the financial management, Edward Helper the integration systems, and Phil Charron the interface. As for medical functionality, Constantine Harris was in charge of signals, and Julia Harris of adhering to medical standards.
In the end, they managed to create a device that, as their team name indicates, crosses the frontier between fiction and reality: the DxtER.
This is DxtER, a real-life tricorder you can hold in the palm of your hand. This device, a truly alchemical piece of technology, is equipped with a sensor panel that be moved across a forehead and temples to make a diagnosis. Coupled with a pulse sensor on an index finger, the little tool gathers an exhaustive list of information: blood pressure, pulse, breathing patterns, and body temperature. All that is then sent to a tablet app, which compares the result against the user’s medical history before determining the nature of the problem. As simple as that might seem, DxtER doesn’t stop at minor injuries. It can also diagnose diabetes, pneumonia, ear infections, or anemia, thanks to the combined work of technology experts and health professionals.
As good as it might be, the device would not have won first prize if it didn’t resemble, at least a little bit, the fictional tricorder. Philip Charron took care of that. Charron believes science fiction and reality are intimately linked. “Sci-fi writers take what’s best in the real market, then extrapolate,” he says. “The tricorder is the perfect example. When Gene Roddenberry [Star Trek’s writer] had the idea, surely he was convinced it could never be real. Yet here we are today. Is that enough to call him a visionary? I don’t know.” And it’s that precise vision of cinema and technological evolution that allowed him to imagine the little device as it is today.
But the relationship between fiction and reality isn’t totally equitable. It’s not enough to snap your fingers for something to be. Especially since the tricorder should be usable by anyone, not just a professional. Its creation, then, has followed distinct steps. “The hardest thing at first was to develop an artificial intelligence around the idea of diagnosis, able to adapt to an individual’s identity while respecting their medical confidentiality.”
As the project advanced and as the sensors showed the extent of their precision, the first successes became apparent. “We’ve succeeded in creating something that can monitor hemoglobin, count the number of white blood cells and the levels of glucose, and all without having to take samples. Never done before!” Charron explains.
Even if commercialization of a functional tricorder is on its way – a handful of medical tests and governmental evaluation remain – Charron isn’t overextending himself. There’s still a ways to go before the most advanced sci-fi tools see the light of day. But we’re on the right track.
“Robot-assisted surgery is done every day,” he says. “In 2001, A Space Odyssey, the characters interacted with HAL, an artificial intelligence. Today, everyone talks to Siri, Alexa, and we say ‘OK Google’ to look something up. Five generations ago, we couldn’t even do surgery with anesthesia. It takes time, yeah, but it’s coming.”
And the ideal space to integrate these tools from fiction is already here.
180 Sutter Street, San Francisco. Looking like a faux Apple Store is Forward, the brand that is currently creating the medical cabinet of the future. The design is clean: the Forward logo is omnipresent, iPads are everywhere, Scandinavian-inspired chairs and walnut furniture abound. The staff, for its part, has ditched the blouse for casual dress. In any case, there’s no point waiting around for a doctor in a white tunic with a four-color hanging from the pocket. Here at Forward, the medical profession is robotic.
The space corresponds perfectly with Philip Charron’s idea of the medical cabinet of tomorrow, which he describes as “a place where routine treatments will be done by machines using huge databases while doctors, human, could focus on more complex cases.” Forward is the real-life manifestation of a smartphone app. Patients open the door of the building and submit to a vertical medical scanner that reads vital signs and makes an initial diagnosis. The data collected is then analyzed by (flesh and bone) doctors while the algorithm makes its own verdict.
Once it’s all said and done, no need for a prescription: an artificial intelligence that can recognize the doctor’s and patient’s voices automatically transcribes the confidential conversation into the client’s database. That’s efficient, given that doctors spend more than half of their time filling out paperwork, and only 27% of their day examining patients. For once, automation may actually be seen as beneficial, and coexistence between man and robot possible.
Now for the tangible part. Under all the glamor of Forward’s décor is a solid financial foundation. The examining robot, charged with evaluating vital signs in patients, only costs a few pennies in electricity, compared to a 20-minute exam by a human doctor. And that can only be to our benefit, thanks to machine learning that, thanks to its increasingly conclusive performance, will give doctors more and more profitability.
That leads one to believe that one day, Forward’s diagnostic tool could, just like the Medical Pod, be able to make a complete diagnosis by itself before undertaking a physical operation – under the supervision of a doctor, of course. That’s, at least, the logical outcome according to Adrian Aoun, Forward’s founder, who has declared that he’s trying to build “the best way to manage health care.”
DxtER and Forward seem to have crossed the first symbolic barrier between fiction and reality: the creation of functional, futuristically-designed devices. However, the luxury of these technologies is also apparent in their cost. Though the tricorder is not on the market and its price yet to be announced, a subscription to Forward costs $1,800 a year just to get a regular diagnosis.
The next step will be working to make these futuristic tools affordable. Otherwise, they’ll continue to be fictional for the majority of us.