Finalists Selected for Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize

Tricorder X_prizeFirst announced in 2012, the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE has sought to bring together the best and brightest minds in the field together to make science fiction science fact. In short, they sought to create a handheld device that could would mimic some of the key functions of the iconic Star Trek tricorder, allowing consumers access to reliable, easy to use diagnostic equipment any time, anywhere, with near instantaneous results.

And now, the list of potential candidates has been whittled down to ten finalists. And while they might be able to live up to the fictitious original, the devices being developed are quite innovative and could represent a significant technological advancement in the diagnostic domain. Qualcomm is offering a US$10 million prize purse in the hope of stimulating the research and development of precision diagnostic equipment.

medical_tricorderIn order to qualify for the prize, the successful scanner must comply with an ambitious set of parameters. First, the device must be able to reliably capture an individual’s heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and oxygen saturation in an easy to use and completely non-invasive fashion. It must also diagnose 13 core diseases – including pneumonia, tuberculosis and diabetes – along with three additional health conditions to be chosen by each team.

Each device varies widely in terms of appearance and composition, but that’s hardly surprising. The only limitations placed on the teams in terms of construction is that the entire apparatus must have a mass of less than 2.3kg (5 lb). Due to the wide range of tests needed to be carried out by the tricorder in order to capture the necessary health metrics, it is highly unlikely that any of the scanners will take the form of a single device.

qualcommtricorderchallenge-3The shortlisted entries include Scanadu (pictured above), a company which is currently developing an entire portfolio of handheld medical devices. The circular sensor is programmed to measure blood pressure, temperature, ECG, oximetry, heart rate, and the breathing rate of a patient or subject – all from a simple, ten second scan. Then there’s Aezon, an American-based team comprised of student engineers from Johns Hopkins University, Maryland.

The Aezon device is made up of a wearable Vitals Monitoring Unit – designed to capture oxygen saturation, blood pressure, respiration rate and ECG metrics – and The Lab Box, a small portable device that makes use of microfluidic chip technology in order to diagnose diseases ranging from streptococcal pharyngitis to a urinary tract infection by analyzing biological samples.

Tricorder XThe other finalists include CloudDX, a Canadian company from Mississauga, Ontario; Danvantri, from Chennai, India; DMI from Cambridge, Mass; the Dynamical Biomarkers Group from Zhongli City, Taiwan; Final Frontier Medical Devices from Paoli, PA; MESI Simplifying Diagnostics from Ljubljana, Slovenia; SCANurse from London, England; and the Zensor from Belfast, Ireland.

In all cases, the entrants are compact, lightweight and efficient devices that push the information obtained through their multiple sensors to a smartphone or tablet interface. This appears to be done with a proprietary smartphone app via the cloud, where it can also be analyzed by a web application. Users will also be able to access their test results, discover information regarding possible symptoms and use big data to form a possible diagnosis.

 

qualcommtricorderchallenge-2

The next and final round of tests for the teams will take place next year between November and December. The scanners will be put through a diagnostic competition involving 15-30 patients whilst judges evaluate the consumers user experience. The final test will also assess the scanners’ adequacy in high-frequency data logging, and the overall winners will be announced in early 2016, and awarded the lucrative $10 million prize to develop their product and bring it to market.

If such a device could be simple enough to allow for self-diagnosis by the general public, it could play a key part in alleviating the pressure on overburdened healthcare systems by cutting down on unnecessary hospital visits. It will also be a boon for personalized medicine, making regular hospital visits quicker, easier, and much less expensive. And let’s not forget, it’s science fiction and Trekky-nerd gold!

Be sure to check out the video below that outlines the aims and potential benefits of the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE challenge. And for more information on the finalists, and to see their promotional videos, check out the Qualcomm website here.


Source:
gizmag.com, tricorder.xprize.org

Jack Andraka and I Have a Chat!

photo(1)Folks, today I have a rare privilege which I want to share with you. Not that long ago, I reached out to a certain brilliant mind that’s been making waves in the scientific community of late, a young man who – despite his age – has been producing some life saving technologies and leading his own research team. This young man, despite his busy schedule, managed to get back to me quite quickly, and agreed to an interview.

I am of coarse referring to Jack Andraka, a man who’s medical science credentials are already pretty damn impressive. At the age of 16, he developed a litmus test that was capable of detecting pancreatic cancer, one that was 90% accurate, 168 times faster than current tests, and 1/26,000th the cost. For this accomplishment, he won first place at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF).

Winning at the 2012 ISEF
Winning at the 2012 ISEF

Afterward, he and the other finalists formed their own research group known as Generation Z, which immediately began working towards the creation of a handheld non-invasive device that could help detect cancer early on. In short, they began working on a tricorder-like device, something for which they hope to collect the Tricorder X PRIZE in the near future.

While this project is ongoing, Andraka presented his own concept for a miniature cancer-detecting device at this year’s ISEF. The device is based on a raman spectrometer, but relies on off-the-shelf components like a laser pointer and an iPod camera to scan tissue for cancer cells. And whereas a raman spectrometer is the size of a small car and can cost upwards of $100,000, his fits in the palm of your hand and costs about $15.

Talking with the Prez
Talking with the Prez

Oh, and I should also mention that Jack got to meet President Obama. When I asked what the experience was like, after admitting to being jealous, he told me that the President “loves to talk about science and asks great questions. [And] he has the softest hands!” Who knew? In any case, here’s what he had to tell me about his inspirations, plans, and predictions for the future.

1. What drew you to science and scientific research in the first place?

I have always enjoyed asking questions and thinking about how and why things behave the way they do. The more I learned about a subject, the more deeply I wanted to explore and that led to even more questions. Even when I was 3 I loved building small dams in streams and experimenting with what would happen if I built the dams a certain way and what changes in water flow would occur.

When I entered 6th grade, science fair was required and was very competitive. I was in a charter school and the science fair was really the highlight of the year. Now I did not only love science, but I was highly motivated to do a really good project!

That's him, building is dams.
That’s him, building his dams

2. You’re litmus test for pancreatic cancer was a major breakthrough. How did you come up with the idea for it?

When I was 14 a close family friend who was like an uncle to me passed away from pancreatic cancer. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was so I turned to every teenager’s go-to source of information, Google and Wikipedia, to learn more. What I found shocked me. The 5 year survival rate is just awful, with only about 5.5% of people diagnosed achieving that time period. One reason is that the disease is relatively asymptomatic and thus is often diagnosed when a patient is in an advanced stage of the cancer. The current methods are expensive and still miss a lot of cancers.

I knew there had to be a better way so I started reading and learning as much as I could. One day in Biology class I was half listening to the teacher talk about antibodies while I was reading a really interesting article on carbon nanotubes. Then it hit me: what if I combined what I was reading (single walled carbon nanotubes) with what I was supposed to be listening to (antibodies) and used that mixture to detect pancreatic cancer.

andraka_profileOf course I had a lot of work left to do so I read and read and thought and thought and finally came up with an idea. I would dip coat strips of inexpensive filter paper with a mixture of single walled carbon nanotubes and the antibody to mesothelin, a biomarker for pancreatic cancer. When mesothelin containing samples were applied the antibody would bind with the mesothelin and push the carbon nanotubes apart, changing the strips’ electrical properties, which I could then measure with an ohm meter borrowed from my dad.

Then I realized I needed a lab (my mom is super patient but I don’t think she’d be willing to have cancer research done in her kitchen!). I wrote up a proposal and sent it out to 200 professors working on anything to do with pancreatic research. Then I sat back waiting for the acceptances to roll in.

I received 199 rejections and one maybe, from Dr Maitra of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. I met with him and he was kind enough to give me a tiny budget and a small space in his lab. I had many many setbacks but after 7 months, I finally created a sensor that could detect mesothelin and thus pancreatic cancer for 3 cents in 5 minutes.

ISEF2012-Top-Three-Winners3. What was your favorite thing about the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair – aside from winning, of course?

My brother had been a finalist at Intel ISEF and I attended as an observer. I was blown away by the number and quality of the projects there and loved talking to the other finalists. It became my dream to attend Intel ISEF as well. My favorite thing about getting to be a finalist was the sense that I was among kids who were as passionate about math and science as I was and who were curious and creative and who wanted to innovate and push their limits. It felt like I had found my new family! People understood each other and shared ideas and it was so exciting and inspiring to be there with them, sharing my ideas as well!

4. What was the inspiration behind you and your colleagues coming together to start “Generation Z”?

I met some other really interesting kids at Intel ISEF who were making huge advances. I am fascinated by creating ways to diagnose diseases and pollutants. We started talking and the subject of the X Prize came up. We thought it would be a fun challenge to try our hand at it! We figure at the very least we will gain valuable experience working on a team project while learning more about what interests us.

5. How did people react to your smartphone-sized cancer detector at this years ISEF?

Of course people came over to see my project because of my success the previous year. This project was not as finished as it could have been because I was so busy traveling and speaking, but it was great to see all my friends and make new ones and explain what I was aiming for.

Tricorder X6. Your plans for a tricorder that will compete in Tricoder X are currently big news. Anything you can tell us about it at this time?

My team is really coming together. Everyone is working on his/her own piece and then we often Skype and discuss what snags we are running up against or what new ideas we are thinking about.

7. When you hear the words “The Future of Medicine”, what comes to mind? What do you think the future holds?

I believe that the future of medicine is advancing so fast because of the internet and now mobile phones. There are so many new and inexpensive diagnostic methods coming out every month. Hopefully the open access movement will allow everyone access to the knowledge they need to innovate by removing the expensive pay walls that lock away journal articles and the important information they contain from people like me who can’t afford them.

Tricorder X_prizeNow kids don’t have to depend on the local library to have a book that may be outdated or unavailable. They can turn to the internet to connect with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), professors, forums and major libraries to gain the information they need to innovate.

8. What are your plans for the future?

I plan to finish my last 2 years of high school and then go to college. I’m not sure which college or exactly what major yet but I can’t wait to get there and learn even more among other people as excited about science as I am.

9. Last question: favorite science-fiction/fantasy/zombie or superhero franchises of all time, and why do you like them?

I like the Iron Man movies the best because the hero is an amazing scientist and engineer and his lab is filled with everything he would ever need. I wonder if Elon Musk has a lab like that in his house!!

Yeah, that sounds about right! I’m betting you and Musk will someday be working together, and I can only pray that a robotic exoskeleton is one of the outcomes! And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that we had a Superhero Challenge here on this site, where we designed our own characters and created a fictional crime-fighting league known as The Revengers! We could use a scientifically-gifted mind in our ranks, just saying…

Thank you for coming by and sharing your time with us Jack! I understood very little of what you said, but I enjoyed hearing about it. I think I speak for us all when I say good luck with all your future endeavors, and may all your research pursuits bear fruit!

The Future of Medicine: Engineered Viruses, Nanoparticles and Bio-Absorbable Circuits

medtechThe future that is fast approaching us is one filled with possibilities, many of which were once thought to be the province of science fiction. Between tricorders and other new devices that can detect cancer sooner and at a fraction of the cost, HIV vaccines and cures, health monitoring tattoos and bionic limbs, we could be moving into an age where all known diseases are curable and physical handicaps will be non-existent.

And in the past few months, more stories have emerged with provide hope for millions of people living with diseases, injuries and disabilities. The first came just over three weeks ago from University of California, Berkley, where researchers have been working with an engineered virus which they claim could help cure blindness. As part of a gene therapy program, this treatment has been shown to effectively correct a rare form of inherited blindness.

virus-sight1For the past six years, medical science has been using adeno-associated viruses (AAV) as part of a gene therapy treatment to correct inherited retinal degenerative disease. However, the process has always been seen as invasive, since it involves injected the AAVs directly into a person’s retina with a needle. What’s more, the rpocess has shown itself to be limited, in that the injected virus does not reach all the retinal cells that need repair.

But as Professor David Schaffer, the lead researcher on the project, stated in an interview with Science Translational Medicine:

[D]octors have no choice because none of the gene delivery viruses can travel all the way through the back of the eye to reach the photoreceptors – the light sensitive cells that need the therapeutic gene.

Building on this and many more years of research, Prof David Schaffer and his colleagues developed a new process where they generated around 100 million variants of AAV and then selected five that were effective in penetrating the retina. They then used the best of these, a strain known as 7m8, to transport genes to cure two types of hereditary blindness on a group of mice.

virus-sightIn each case, the engineered virus delivered the corrective gene to all areas of the retina and restored retinal cells nearly to normal. But more importantly, the virus’ ability to penetrate the retina on its own makes the process far less invasive, and will likely be far more cost-effective when adapted to humans. And the process is apparently very convenient:

[W]e have now created a virus that you just inject into the liquid vitreous humor inside the eye and it delivers genes to a very difficult-to-reach population of delicate cells in a way that is surgically non-invasive and safe. It’s a 15-minute procedure, and you can likely go home that day.

Naturally, clinical trials are still needed, but the results are encouraging and Professor Schaffer indicated that his team are busy at work, now collaborating with physicians to identify the patients most likely to benefit from this gene-delivery technique.

nanoparticles_miceNext up, there was the announcement back at the end of May that researchers from North Carolina State and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill had found yet another medical use for nanoparticles. In there case, this consisted of combating a major health concern, especially amongst young people today: diabetes.

In a study that was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the collaborating teams indicated that their solution of nanoparticles was able to monitor blood sugar levels in a group of mice and released insulin when their sugar levels got too high. Based on the results, the researchers claim that their method will also work for human beings with type 1 diabetes.

image descriptionEach of the nanoparticles have a core of insulin that is contained with a degradable shell. When glucose levels in the blood reach high concentrations spike, the shell dissolves, releasing insulin and lowering the subject’s blood sugar. The degradable nano-network was shown to work in mice where a single injection kept blood glucose levels normal for a minimum of 10 days.

While the exact cause of this kind of diabetes is unknown, the effects certainly are. Patients living with this genetically-acquired form of the disease require several shots of insulin a day to keep their blood sugar levels under control. And even then, blindness, depression and even death can still result. What’s more, if the insulin shots are specifically calculated for the individual in question, side-effects can occur.

???????????????????????????????Hence the genius behind this new method. Not only would it relieve people who have type 1 diabetes from constantly injecting themselves, it would also remove the need to monitor their own blood sugar levels since the nanoparticles would be controlling them automatically.

In a study published recently in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Zhen Gu, lead author of the study claimed that the technology functions essentially the same as a pancreas. Hence another benefit of the new method, in that it could make pancreatic transplants – which are often necessary for patients with diabetes – unnecessary.

biocircuitsAnd last, but certainly not least, comes from the University of Illinois where John Rogers are developing a series of bio-absorbable electronic circuits that could help us win the war on drug-resistant bacteria. As part of a growing trend of biodegradable, flexible electronic circuits that operate wirelessly, fighting “superbugs” is just one application for this technology, but a very valuable one.

For some time now, bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics has been spreading, threatening to put the clock back 100 years to the time when routine, minor surgery was life-threatening. Some medical experts are warning that otherwise straightforward operations could soon become deadly unless new ways to fend off these infections are found. And though bacteria can evolve ways of evading chemical assaults, they are still vulnerable to direct assault.

electronics_dissolvingThis is how the new bio-absorbable circuits work: by heating up the virus. Each circuit is essentially a miniature electric heater that can be implanted into wounds and powered wirelessly to fry bacteria during healing before dissolving harmlessly into body fluids once their job is done. While this might sound dangerous, keep in mind that it takes only a relatively mild warming to kill bugs without causing discomfort or harm to surrounding tissues.

To fashion the circuits, Rogers and his colleagues used layers of utra-thin wafers and silk, material so thin that they disintegrate in water or body fluids or (in the case of silk) are known to dissolve anyway. For the metal parts, they used extra-thin films of magnesium, which is not only harmless but in fact an essential nutrient. For semiconductors, they used silicon membranes 300 nanometres thick, which also dissolve in water.

In addition to deterring bacteria, Rogers says that implantable, bio-absorbable RF electronics could be used to stimulate nerves for pain relief, and to stimulate bone re-growth, a process long proven to work when electrodes are placed on the skin or directly on the bone. Conceivably they could also be used to precisely control drug release from implanted reservoirs.

In other words, this is just the beginning. When it comes to the future of medicine, just about any barrier that was once considered impassable are suddenly looking quite porous…

Sources: sci-news.com, stm.sciencemag.org, singularityhub.com, bbc.com/future

Ending Cancer: Cell-Phone Sized Cancer Detector!

ISEF2012-Top-Three-WinnersThe name Jack Andraka is already one that researchers and medical practitioners are familiar with. Roughly a year ago, the 16-year old boy developed a litmus test that was capable of detecting pancreatic cancer, one of the most lethal forms of the disease and one of the most difficult to treat. And given that his method was 90% accurate, 168 times faster than current tests and 1/26,000th the cost, it’s title wonder why he’s considered something of a wonder kid.

Well, it seems boy genius is at it again! Shortly after receiving first place at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), Andraka assembled a crack team of young scientists and began working on a handheld, non-invasive device that could help detect cancer early on. Much like Scanadu, the company that recently release a sensor for testing vitals, Andraka and his team were looking to create a genuine tricorder-like device.

Tricorder X_prizeAnd while their group – known as Generation Z and which was formed from the other 2012 finalists – is working towards such a device, Andraka presented his own concept at this year’s ISEF. Apparently, what he built is modeled on a tradition raman spectrometer –  a device that can be used to detect explosives, environmental contaminants, and cancer in the human body.

A conventional raman spectrometer is extremely delicate, can be as large as a small car, and cost up to $100,000. By contrast, the one designed by Andraka costs only $15 and is the size of a cell phone. According to Andraka, a raman spectrometer works by “[shooting] a powerful laser at a sample and tells the exact chemical composition.” Such a device also relies on a liquid nitrogen cooled photodector to examine the chemical composition of whatever material is currently being examined.

Those powerful lasers alone can cost up to $40,000, so Andraka swapped out the big lasers for an off-the-shelf laser pointer and replaced the photodetector with an iPhone camera. According to Andraka, the results are comparable, at a fraction of the size and, more importantly, the cost. So once more, the boy genius has presented medical science with a cheap, effective means of early detection, something which could save lives and millions in health care costs.

Tricorder XAndraka admits that this device was pretty much all his, but he plans to incorporate it into the tricorder design that he and his colleagues in Generation Z are developing. Once realized, the resulting device will be competing for the Tricorder X Prize – a ten million dollar grant that is given to any entrant that can create a handheld mobile platform that can diagnose 15 diseases across 30 patients in just three days.

But of course, they will have some stiff competition, not the least of which will come from Scanadu, which just happens to have the backing of NASA’s Ames Center.  But then again, the world loves an underdog. And when it comes to medical devices, cancer, and other diseases of the body, its clear that Andraka and his peers are just getting started!

And be sure to check out this video with highlights from the 2013 ISEF:


Sources:
fastcoexist.com(2)

The Future is Here: The Real-Life Tricorder

medical_tricorderIt was only a matter of time, I guess. But we really should have known that with all the improvements being made in biometrics and biotechnology – giving patients and doctors the means to monitor their vitals, blood pressure, glucose levels and the like with tiny devices – and all the talk of how it looked like something out of science fiction that it wouldn’t be long before someone took it upon themselves to build a device right out of Star Trek.

It’s known as a the Scanadu Scout, a non-invasive medical device that is capable of measuring your vitals simply by being held up to your temple for a mere 10 seconds. The people responsible for its creation are a startup named Scanadu, a group of research and medtech enthusiasts who are based at the NASA Ames Research Center. For the past two years, they have been seeking to create the world’s first handheld medical scanner, and with the production of the Scout, they have their prototype!

scanaduAll told, the device is able to track pulse transit time (to measure blood pressure), temperature, ECG, oximetry, heart rate, and the breathing rate of a patient or subject. A 10 second scan of a person’s temple yields data that has a 99% accuracy rate, which can then be transmitted automatically via Bluetooth to the user’s smartphone, tablet or mobile device.

The device has since been upgraded from its original version and runs at a rate of 32 bits (up from the original 8). And interestingly enough, the Scouts now runs on Micrium, the operation system that NASA uses for Mars sample analysis on the Curiosity rover. The upgrade became necessary when Scanadu co-founder Walter De Brouwer, decided to add an extra feature: the ability to remotely trigger new algorithms and plug in new sensors (like a spectrometer).

medtechOne would think that working with NASA is effecting his thinking. But as Brouwer points out, the more information the machine is capable of collecting, the better is will be at monitoring your health:

If we find new algorithms to find relationships between several readings, we can use more of the sensors than we would first activate. If you know a couple of the variables, you could statistically predict that something is going to happen. The more data we have, the more we can also predict, because we’re using data mining at the same time as statistics.

One of the Scout’s cornerstone algorithms, for example, allows it to read blood pressure without the inflating cuff that we’ve all come to know and find so uncomfortable. In the future, Scanadu could discover an algorithm that connects, age, weight, blood pressure, and heart rate with some other variable, and then be able to make recommendations.

2009_world_subdivisions_flu_pandemicEveryone who pre-orders a Scout has their data sent to a cloud service, where Scanadu will collect it in a big file for the FDA. Anyone who opts-in will also gain access to the data of other users who have also elected to share their vitals. Brouwer explains that this is part of the products early mission to test the parameters of information sharing and cloud-medical computing:

It’s going to be a consumer product in the future, but right now we are positioning it as a research tool so that it can be used to finalize the design and collect data to eventually gain regulatory approval. In the end, you have to prove how people are going to use the device, how many times a day, and how they are going to react to the information.

In the future, De Brouwer imagines this kind of shared information could be used for population scanning, kind of like Google Flu Trends does, except with data being provided directly from individuals. The focus will also be much more local, with people using the Scout’s stats to able to see if their child, who suddenly has flu symptoms, is alone of ir other kids at their school are also sick. Pandemics and the outbreaks of fatal diseases could also be tracked in the same way and people forewarned.

medical-technologyNaturally, this raises some additional questions. With it now possible to share and communicate medical information so easily between devices, from people to their doctors, and stored within databases of varying accessibility, there is the ongoing issue of privacy. If in fact medical information can be actively shared in real-time or with the touch of a button, how hard will it be for third parties to gain access to them?

The upsides are clear: a society where health information is easily accessible is likely to avoid outbreaks of infectious disease and be able to contain pandemics with greater ease. But on the flip side, hackers are likely to find ways to access and abuse this information, since it will be in a public place where people can get at it. And naturally, there are plenty of people who will feel squeamish or downright terrified about the FDA having access to up-to-the-moment medical info on them.

It’s the age of cloud computing, wireless communications, and information sharing my friends. And much as people feel guarded about their personal information now, this is likely to take on extra dimensions when their personal medical info is added to the mix. Not a simple or comfortable subject.

But while I’ve still got you’re here, no doubt contemplating the future of medicine, take a look at this video of the Scanadu Scout in action:


Source:
fastcoexist.com, google.org/flutrends/

Envisioning The Future of Health Technology

My thanks, yet again, to Futurist Foresight for providing the link to this fascinating infographic, which is the work of the good people at Envisioning Technology. People may remember this website from their work on “Envisioning Emerging Technology”, an infographic from a previous article which addressed the likelihood of interrelated technological developments in the coming decades. As a trend forecasting studio, compiling information and predictions into reports and tables in pretty much what these guys do. What a cool job!

In any case, here we have a table representing the future of health technology, as predicted by ET. Diving their findings into the fields of Augmentation, Biogerontology, Diagnostics, Telemedicine, Treatments, and Regeneration respectively, they attempt to show how small advancement in the near future will branch outwards to more radical ones in the not-too-distant future. The rough dates correspond to their previous graphic, starting with modern day research and culminating in 2040.

And of course, the infographic also shows how developments in all these fields over time will be interrelated, corresponding to different sub fields and becoming part of the ever-expanding field of advanced medicine. These sub fields include:

  • 3D Printing
  • Big Data
  • Cryonics
  • Life Extension
  • mHealth (health services supported by mobile devices)
  • Remote Virtual Presence
  • Neuroprosthetics
  • Sensors
  • Sensory Augmentation
  • Synthetic and Artificial Organs

Some inventions that are predicted include the Tricorder, 3D printed organs, artificial limbs, artificial eyes, cryogenic freezing, gene therapy, AI therapists, robotic nurses, robot surgery, implanted sensors, and exoskeletons. Wow, tricorders, really? In truth, I am often alarmed at what will be possible in the near future, but knowing that advancements are around the corner that could make life a lot healthier and happier for so many people gives me hope. Until next time!

Technology in the Star Trek Universe (updated!)

I’ve wanted to do a post like this for awhile, ever since my conceptual post on Galactic Empires in fact. After doing my research on what distinguished one from the other, I noticed just how central technology, or the perception thereof, is to it all.

And let’s face it, Star Trek has had a lot to say about technology over the years, not all of it consistent! So with a series of examples, I thought I’d examine just what Gene Roddenberry and his successors have had to say.

Cloaking Device:
First developed by the Romulan Empire, the concept for an invisibility field that encompasses an entire ship has been picked up by just about every advanced race in the galaxy. Considered impractical by many because of the intense power drain, other races have found ways to adapt it to give their ships a decided edge in combat.

One such race are the Klingons whose vessels all come equipped with a cloak. The Romulans maintain use of this technology on their military vessels, particularly their warbirds, and even the Federation has been known to dabble in it from time to time. Another discernible weakness is the presence of tachyons and anti-protons that cloaked vessels are known to produce.

Holodecks:
The holodeck is an advanced holoprojector device that was designed by Starfleet for use aboard starships, stations, and institutions. It serves the purpose of entertaining, training and training purposes. Using focused photons to simulate matter, the holodeck is able to create physically real virtual environments out of pure energy.

Because of their potential for danger, all holodecks come equipped with built-in safeguards. Matter created aboard the holodeck ceases to exist as soon as it passes beyond its generators, and the technology has been adapted to creating AI’s such as the ship’s emergency doctor program.

Hypospray:
This non-invasive piece of medical technology is the mainstay of Starfleet medical. Using a compressed air transport mechanism, this device is able to transfer the injectant painlessly from the device into the subdermal layer below the skin of the body, or artery.

In the original series, hyposprays resembled hypodermic needles, but by the time of the 24th century (the TNG series) they had become much more sophisticated, resembling the unit pictured at top left.

Phasers:
Short for phased-energy laser, phasers are the most common energy weapon in Starfleet and the known universe. Beginning in the 23rd century, the technology was adapted for use as hand-held weapons, military rifles, and as the primary weapons banks on ships.

The 24th century saw further developments in the development of this weapon, which included mutli-segment phaser arrays,  and phaser cannons. The former made their first appearance in TNG on the USS Enterprise D and other updated ships while the latter appeared for the first time on USS Defiant.

Replicators:
Using the same technology as the holodeck, a replicator is a matter-energy device that is capable of dematerializing quantities of small matter and reconstituting it as something else. This can take the form of food, commercial products, or machine parts. In short, anything can come out of a replicator so long as it has the atomic matrix down, and isn’t illegal!

Prior to TNG, Starfleet ships used food synthesizers, but by the 24th century, the technology had been perfected and made standard on all starships, stations, outposts and settlements. Because of their sheer usefulness and versatility, every advanced race has adapted the technology for their own use.

Shields:
Also known as Deflector Shields or Screens, these devices are the mainstay of all advanced races in the Star Trek universe. Operating by creating a layer, or layers, of energetic distortion containing a high concentration of gravitons, they are able to provide protection against weapons fire and natural hazards.

Typically, shields are emitted from either a central emitter dish or a series that are dispersed over the hull. They usually come in six sections, covering the fore, aft, port, starboard, dorsal and ventral areas of the ship. In time, shields can be dissipated by either continuous or repeated energy discharges, leaving the ship vulnerable.

Transporters:
Utilizing subspace technology and the same matter-to-energy concept as a holodeck, the transport is the principle means of transportation to and from ships in the Star Trek universe. Often referred to as “beaming”, transporters are able to dematerialize, transmit and reassemble an object from one pad to another.

Making its debut in the original series, the technology has been updated in the TNG universe and its various spinoffs to allow for greater accuracy and safety through the addition of added redundancies. This increased accuracy allows for point-to-point transport, usually within smaller areas like the ship itself.

Tricorders:
A handheld sensing device, the tricorder was invented by Starfleet specifically for use by Starfleet personnel. However, since their inception in the 22nd century, they’ve gone through repeated upgrades, adaptations and have been adopted by just about every advanced race in the Alpha Quadrant.

As it stands, there are six varieties of tricorder in use within Starfleet alone. These include the psychotricorder which measures a patients brainwaves, a medical tricorder which diagnoses ailments and injury, and four models (VI,VII, X and XV) all of which are in service in one branch of Starfleet or another.

Warp Drive:
In the Star Trek universe, the warp drive is both the primary means of transport and the pinnacle of a race’s technology. In fact, Starfleet only makes contact with a new alien race once they’ve developed this technology, as it’s felt that it is only at this point in a species’ development that they will be advanced enough to experience first contact.

First developed by the human race in the late 21st century, warp technology was what precipitated First Contact with the Vulcans. Utilizing a matter/antimatter process and a dilithium chamber, a warp drive generates a “warp field” to envelope a starship. This has the effect of distorting the local spacetime continuum and moving the starship at velocities that exceeded the speed of light.

Every advanced race in the Alpha Quadrant has this technology, though some are able to achieve greater velocities (known as warp factors) than others. In the course of the old series and new, new and more advanced forms of FTL are being researched which may replace standard warp. These include transwarp, quantum slipstream, and a host of others.

Conclusions:
Technology as Utopian:
For the most, part Star Trek seems to be making the point that technology is a good thing. Whether it was the original series, TNG, or the many spinoffs to follow, it seemed that humanity owed much of its current condition to technological progress. Though they never explained how, at many points in the franchise it is said that Earth is now a paradise, bereft of crime, bigotry, hunger, and inequality. Just about all known diseases have been cured, and even money has become obsolete.

Yes, it seems that in the future, the focus of the economy has shifted to one of “self-improvement”… Might seem a bit hokey on the surface, but as I said in the Galactic Empires post, it’s really not that farfetched. Although its still pure fiction, the advent of something like warp drive, which would make space travel quick and affordable, commerce and transport between colony worlds would be open. This would mean abundant resources that went far beyond Earth and the Solar System, and we already know just how rich our system is in resources (see Asteroid Mining).

But more importantly is the development of replicator technology, which comes in the form of personal and industrial sized units. The former are used to produce everything from food and clothing to consumer products while the latter can create just about anything in bulk quantity. If this were possible, then all scarcity and deprivation would cease to exist. What’s more, the entire basis of an unequal distribution of wealth would disappear. Frankly, it puts me in mind of what Orwell said in 1984:

From the moment that the machine first made its appearance it was clear to all thinking people that the need for human drudgery, and therefore to a great extent for human inequality, had disappeared. If the machine were used deliberately for that end, hunger, overwork, dirt, illiteracy and disease could be eliminated within a few generations.

By the “machine”, Orwell was of course referring to industrial technology and the economy it spawned. However, his overall point was clear. Modern technology, dedicated to the write purpose, had the ability to significantly raise the fortunes of all people. And let’s not forget how in the Star Trek universe, hyposprays and various medical devices can solve just about all that ails you! Break a bone, you get the bone knitter! Tear your ACL, you get the… ligament bonder. I don’t know, all I do know is that pain is virtually obsolete in this universe and its because of progress.

So really, Roddenberry wasn’t far off when he envisioned a “perfect society” in the future. It was just in how he failed to explain how this could done that things seemed a little weak. But of course, there was a flip side to the whole thing.

Technology as Dystopian:
But of course, there were plenty of examples of technology gone wrong. The examples are a little too many to name, so I’ll keep it to just a few. The first comes from the first season when the Enterprise D comes to a planet of Aldea. There, a group of advanced humanoid aliens live in relative peace and prosperity, except that they are sterile and therefore dying off. Hence why they start kidnapping the Enterprise’s children!

Eventually, the Enterprise crew determines that the source of their problem is the great machine that runs their planet, otherwise known as “Custodian”. Because they’ve forgotten how to use the machine, the Aldeans have been unaware of the fact that it’s long since broken down and has been letting harmful radiation in. They assist them in fixing it, and the lesson about letting technology run your life has landed!

The second example comes from the regrettable movie Insurrection, where the Enterprise E comes to an idyllic planet inhabited by the Bak’u. Here, people live in virtually perfect harmony with the planet by denying themselves certain technology, opting instead for the simple life. Their philosophy is simple: “when you create a machine to do the job of  man, you take something away from the man”.

All of this seems inconsistent with the usual message of Star Trek, and even the movie itself. Far from being purely primitive, the Bak’u employ all kinds of labor saving technology, which includes irrigation and dams. So really, are they really so opposed to technology or just specific technologies? Nevertheless, the metaphor is clear. Combined with the fact that this place has youth-preserving powers, the metaphor of this place is pretty obvious. It is the fountain of youth, garden of Eden, and the evil Son’a who are advanced and creepy want to destroy it. Not their best movie!

But the last and best example comes in the form of The Borg. A race of cybernetic beings who have merged the organic and synthetic, run by a hive mind that quashes all individuality, and threatening to assimilate all in their path, the metaphor is so thick you need a knife to cut through it. They are the ruthless march of progress personified!

And just look at them and their ships, are they not the perfect representation of cold, unfeeling technology? Sure they are! And the way people change once they’ve been assimilated, becoming soulless automatons and losing all color and individuality. Tell me that’s not a perfect visual representation of the death of the human spirit under the weight of urbanization and anonymity.

Some might call this inconsistent, but it seemed more likely like Roddenberry and his writers were simply hedging their bets. On the one hand, he was showing how human potential could one day yield the perfect society, or at least one that was free of all the problems we know and lament today. On the other, they must have wanted to show the obvious downside and dangers at worshiping at the altar of progress. After all, if you put an ideal, any ideal, ahead of humanity and life, all you get is dystopia!

And as always, other races in the Star Trek universe serve as a mirror for the human condition, or rather different aspects of it. If the human race has got it right, then others must not have achieved that careful balance of humanity and progress just yet. Whereas some prefer to be Luddites and live in an agrarian Eden, others have become runaway cyborgs who assimilate all in their path. It’s all about balance people!

Well, that was kind of fun! And it combined two of my favorite things in the world. Sci-fi and literary criticism. Perhaps I should do more of these. As always, suggestion on which franchise should be covered would be great. I can think of a few off the top of my head – such as the Star Wars universe, Dune, Aliens, Terminator, and possibly Battletech – but I would like to hear from others too. There’s always those added few that would be perfect but I fail to think of. Thanks all!