Science fiction writers since the earliest days of the genre have looked into the futures crystal ball and built a story on top of their predictions. Jules Verne was one of the first and greatest at predicting future technology and then building his tales atop of this future vision.
There is a level of self-fulfilling prophecy to science fiction. This as a peculiar effect that combines circle of Noid life – inventing our dreams – and the fact that a good prediction has a level on inevitability to it.
Gene Roddenberry, the writer of the original Star Trek series was also a master of the Science Fiction black arts with many of his predictions spot on. Take the Tricorder for example, an idea that seemed so useful and logical that it might be considered inevitable. Let’s just hope that someone remembers to invent those doors that go swoosh in the original Star Trek TV series.
Which brings us to today events. The announcement of the $10,000,000 X-Prize competition for the first team to invent a working medical Tricorder. An announcement that has seen scientists working away feverishly. There is nothing like a big pile of cash to focus people’s attention.
Teams are already announcing discoveries that are taking us one step closer to a working Tricorder. One team of A*Star researchers have produced the most powerful T-Ray – Terahertz wave – antenna that, thanks to its more efficient design could bring T-Rays to handheld devices such as a Tricorder.
The Tricorder X-Prize
The X-Prize Foundations recent announcement – 10th, January 2012 – of the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE competition sees mobile chip developer Qualcomm partner with the X Prize foundation for the start of another great race, a technological race. While the X-Prize foundation had announced the upcoming Tricorder competition in May – 10th, May 2011 – this recent announcement signals the start of the competition. The rules have been laid out, contestants are ready and the flag has been dropped and. The participants are underway.
From the X-Prize announcement “There is a dire need to improve access to healthcare globally and provide consumers with an opportunity to be active participants in their own health,” said Dr. Diamandis. “The Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE will incentivise the creation of technologies that can empower the consumer with the ability to decide when, where and how to seek health information and care.” Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation.
The $10 million top prize will be awarded to the team that develops a mobile platform that most accurately diagnoses a set of 15 diseases across 30 consumers in three days. Teams must also deliver this information in a way that provides a compelling consumer experience while capturing real time, critical health metrics such as blood pressure, respiratory rate and temperature. The winning solutions will enable consumers in any location to quickly and effectively assess health conditions, determine if they need professional help and answer the question, “What do I do next?” when it comes to their health.
The name Tricorder relates to its ability to operate in three –tri– modes of scanning and recording, theoretically. The three modes of operation were geological, meteorological and biological coupled with the ability to scan and record in a non-contact non-invasive manner. In essence a Tricorder needs to be able to scan and store characteristics of different parts of the environment around you. Everything from rock structures to life forms need to be scanned in detail, without having to provide samples The X-Prize team have decided to start things off easily and are concentrating on the biological scanning aspects of the Tricorder idea.
The magic of the Tricorder is actually based in the non-contact nature of the device. Non-contact diagnosis and treatment. While non-evasive surgery is being touted as the future of surgery, non-contact is the next step after that, way of the future. No sample preparation’s required, with a Tricorder the whole world is your sample, simply point the Tricorder at an object or subject and hit the button. In theory anyway.
The other aspect to a Tricorder is the non-invasive sample free operation. A large majority of medical diagnosis requires a biopsy – small sample – to be taken for testing. The promise of a Tricorder has always been the ability to simply look inside a subject and make a diagnosis. No samples require being taken, no having to open you up and poke about to find out what’s going on. With every invasive operation having a certain amount of risk and recovery time the Tricorder offers far faster and safer diagnosis.
There has been much interest in being the first to build a working Tricorder, even before the X-Prize Foundation became involved. In 1996 Vital Technologies Corporation released the Tricorder – TR-107 Tricorder Mark 1– a small portable device that included EMF sensors, weather sensors and a light meter. While not the technology required to win the X-Prize it demonstrates a Tricorder’s main characteristic, non-contact and non-invasive scanning technology. Since 2007 there have been more than a few technological breakthroughs headlined with the term Tricorder.
In order to win the X-Prize competition only the biological medical aspects of the Tricorder need to be fulfilled, no easy feat in itself. This is also true for a Tricorder in general. A non-contact diagnosis machine will actually be an extremely useful medical device. Combined with the internet it could help to make remote medical emergencies far easier to deal with. With your doctor in a distant city you could give yourself a quick scan and the doctor will have enough information to make an initial diagnosis. As the first hours after a medical emergency can make the difference between life and death this could be serious lifesaving technology.
Advancements in the technology required to build a working Tricorder are already being announced, the interest in the Tricorder is obviously great.
The T-Ray Break-through
A team of A*STAR researches working from Singapore and London have developed and are now testing a new nano antenna technology able to transmit a powerful beam of terahertz waves – T-Ray -. Able to generate a beam 100’s of times more powerful than previously possible. This new discovery also operates using little power and at room temperature. This may be the perfect technology for a portable handheld scanning device.
The T-Ray is thought to be the most likely candidate for non-invasive internal inspection of living tissues. A non-destructive and high resolution X-Ray. T-Ray waves are a form of radiation, sitting between microwave radiation and far-infra red frequencies. Being a submillimeter microwave radiation it shares with microwaves the capability to penetrate a wide variety of non-conducting materials. Terahertz radiation can pass through clothing, paper, cardboard, wood, masonry, and ceramics. It can also penetrate fog and clouds, but cannot penetrate metal or water.
The same technology is already in use on a larger scale in Airport full body scanners. This is the technology behind the controversial airport scanners that can see through cloths. While these are working examples of T-Ray technology they require large amounts of power and must be cooled to nearly -200 degrees Celsius in order to work. When these machines were first being demonstrated they were quickly compared to the Sci-Fi movie Total Recall, in which people walked through a scanner that showed their skeleton and any weapons in real time.
In the new technique, the researchers demonstrated that it is possible to produce a strong beam of T-rays by shining light of differing wavelengths on a pair of electrodes – two pointed strips of metal separated by a 100 nanometer gap on top of a semiconductor wafer. The unique tip-to-tip nano-sized gap electrode structure greatly enhances the THz field and acts like a nano-antenna that amplifies the THz wave generated. The waves are produced by an interaction between the electromagnetic waves of the light pulses and a powerful current passing between the semiconductor electrodes from the carriers generated in the underlying semiconductor. The scientists are able to tune the wavelength of the T-rays to create a beam that is useable in the scanning technology.
Lead author Dr Jing Hua Teng, from A*STAR’s IMRE, said: “The secret behind the innovation lies in the new nano-antenna that we had developed and integrated into the semiconductor chip.” Arrays of these nano-antennas create much stronger THz fields that generate a power output that is 100 times higher than the power output of commonly used THz sources that have conventional interdigitated – interlocking, without a gap – antenna structures. A stronger T-ray source renders the T-ray imaging devices more power and higher resolution.
Chemical analysis systems are moving onto the chip, with the silicon nose recently announced. Laboratory On a Chip – LOC – is a new emerging technology that shifts all stages of laboratory analysis into a tiny micro-mechanical system. With far faster analysis time and disposable chips this technology is revolutionizing laboratory analysis. There are a number of technologies being developed in this field that may find their way into the future Tricorder. Gas spectrum analysis performed by chips is very applicable. These silicon sniffer dogs are part of the LOC revolution happening in laboratories around the world.
Even though the Tricorder is still to be invented it has seen many generations evolve over the life of the Star Trek franchise. From the earliest brick sized devices to the latest LED torch sized Tricorder in Voyager, it has evolved.
This is also going to be true for its development in real life as well. The first version will be simple, with limited medical uses, but it will evolve, which is the important bit. The X-Prize has put a flag in the ground and given us a starting point, once we achieve that point the Tricorder will evolve and change, improving with new technology but we need to push past the creation of version 1.0 first.
The X-Prize and Qualcomm are helping to focus everyone’s attention on new non-invasive technologies. The X-Prize also has the interesting effect of bringing researchers together, with the Prize focusing attention on a final ideal and device, teams will be bringing disparate research together. Hopefully the Lab on a Chip people will now talk the the Terahertz people and the medical software people in order to bring what is required together. Having a specific goal or target can often have this effect, making a team focus on a larger objective rather than just their specific research field.
Now back to important research, how to build automatic sliding doors that go swoosh….