Tech company Qualcomm has offered a generous prize for anyone who can create a working version of Star Trek‘s handheld medical scanner.

So, here’s the scenario: You and your away team beam down to a potentially hostile planet. Ensign Redshirt takes a whiff of some local flora and promptly collapses. You order your chief medical officer to examine him, which requires transporting him back to sick bay and running a lengthy, rigorous series of tests while you stand there, twiddling your thumbs. Doesn’t sound very glamorous, does it? Make no mistake: This is the future that awaits humanity if no one invents the tricorder, the miracle gadget from Star Trek that can diagnose a patient’s vital stats and medical condition just by waving it over him. Thankfully, Qualcomm, a large California-based technology company, has given aspiring inventors an incentive to get moving on it. Create a real-life tricorder, and you can walk away with a cool $10 million. Sounds logical.

The Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, which launched in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show, aims to bring the technology of the 23rd century into the 21st. While X Prize Foundation Peter Diamandis does not believe that creating the tricorder will be simple – or even necessarily feasible – with today’s tech, he thinks a big, challenging idea is the best way to revolutionize the healthcare industry. “It’s not a single point solution,” he explains. “The tricorder that was used by Spock and Bones inspires a vision of what healthcare will be like in the future. It will be wireless, mobile and minimally- or non-invasive. It may use digital imaging, it may be sequencing your DNA on the spot to tell you if you are allergic to something you just ate.”

While much of the technology necessary for a tricorder already exists, making it handheld is much easier said than done (the contest specifies that the tricorder must weigh five pounds or less). Jeremy Nicholson, the head of the department of surgery and cancer at Imperial College London, highlights some of the difficulties. He points out that extant devices that assess patients’ internal chemistry, metabolism, and illnesses are the size of small cars, and not easily transportable. Even so, he acknowledges that such a project can be “good fun,” and may get people thinking about the big picture of advancing healthcare technology.

While a modern-day tricorder is far-fetched, the X Prize Foundation has achieved remarkable results in the past. In 2004, it awarded $10 million for SpaceShipOne, the first privately developed manned spaceflight. Between spaceships and tricorders, the X Prize Foundation may end up singlehandedly bringing about a 23rd century where Star Trek is a reality. I wish all the inventors out there good luck, but I’m going to sit this one out. Why? Damn it, Jim, I’m a doctor, not an engineer!

Source: BBC News

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