Making the Science Fiction-Inspired Star Trek Tricorder a Reality

The latest X Prize competition was unveiled to "develop a mobile solution that can diagnose patients better than or equal to a panel of board certified physicians."

What's the Big Idea?

A lot of exciting gadgets have been unveiled so far at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Yet none of these products have anywhere near the transformative potential of what Peter Diamandis unveiled. Diamandis introduced the new X Prize competition to "develop a mobile solution that can diagnose patients better than or equal to a panel of board certified physicians." 

The landmark Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize is named after the fictional Star Trek general-purpose handheld device. The winning device will need to be capable of diagnosing a set of 15 diseases, empowering health care consumers to be what Diamandis calls the "CEOs of their own health." 

The X Prize Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to solving the world's "Grand Challenges" through incentivized prize competitions that "stimulate investment in research and development worth far more than the prize itself." Indeed, Diamandis's embrace of breakthrough technologies is part of a broad and exciting worldview. Diamandis and the science writer Steven Kotler have a book coming out in February called Abundance: Why the Future Will Be Much Better Than You Think. The premise of the book is simple, yet powerful, and is worth quoting here: 

History's littered with tales of once rare resources made plentiful by innovation. The reason is pretty straightforward: scarcity is often contextual. Imagine a giant orange tree packed with fruit. If I pluck all the oranges from the lower branches, I am effectively out of accessible fruit. From my limited perspective, oranges are now scarce. But once someone invents a piece of technology called a ladder, I've suddenly got new reach. Problem solved. Technology is a resource liberating mechanism. It can make the once scarce the now abundant.

What's the Significance?

The concept of abundance applies to nearly every field, from energy to education to health care. And yet, as Diamandis and Kotler point out, the prevailing worldview today still tends to be based on scarcity, not abundance. That needs to change, the authors argue, because "when seen through the lens of technology, few resources are truly scarce." 

This principle has enormous implications for health care. There is a scarcity of trained doctors, for instance, and particularly doctors who are available to diagnose diseases such as HIV, malaria and tuberculous that afflict the bottom billion of the world's population. But what if "doctors" are no longer regarded as a scarce resource? What if diagnosis is widely available, cheap and even free? And what if your doctor has the computing power of IBM's Watson? 

Diamandis told Big Think how the tricorder device will work in simple terms:

The concept is that in the future, you’re going to have a cell phone that you can speak to. It’s got an AI capability and expert systems capability that understands and listens in natural language. On top of that, you can put your finger on it and it will take a small blood sample. You can cough on it, you can do a DNA analysis of whatever pathogens you have in it.  Ultimately this device becomes your personal physician. 

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

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