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It's life Jim but not as we know it: How to Make Science Fiction Reality

November 28th 2014

The X Prize Foundation dates back to 1996 when a $10million prize was offered for the first privately financed team that could build and fly a three-passenger vehicle 100 kilometres into space twice within two weeks.  Such prizes are not a new idea – in 1919 a $25,000 prize was offered by French hotelier Raymond Orteig for the first nonstop flight between New York City and Paris.  This was subsequently claimed in 1927 by Charles Lindbergh and in 2004 the 1996 Space Flight X Prize was won by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, with SpaceShipOne.

The Foundation has some interesting backers, including Elon Musk (latterday real life IronMan), Rajan Tata (erstwhile Chairman of the Tata Group), Bill and Melinda Gates and Erik Lindbergh, grandson of Charles.

All of the X Prizes are carefully thought through.  Bill and Melinda Gates are working on a prize for a better tuberculosis diagnostic tool.  However, it’s another medical related prize that’s recently grabbed the headlines.

The so-called Tricorder X Prize was launched in 2012 and is a challenge to scientists and engineers to develop a machine that can diagnose numerous medical conditions simultaneously better than or equal to a panel of board certified physicians and without causing harm or discomfort to the patient.

The real-life tricorder must be portalable, weigh less than 5 pounds, monitor five vital signs and detect 15 medical conditions. It should let people measure their own blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, oxygen saturation and respiratory rate. Each system must be able to diagnose common health conditions including diabetes, anemia, sleep apnea and pneumonia.

A shortlist of 10 devices has just been announced and it is likely that 3 winners will be chosen.  Two of the shortlist are from the UK.  A Kingston based team are developing SCANurse that collects data from breath and movement as well as images from the ears and throat.  A team from Belfast are progressing a system called Zensor which places patches on the patient’s body. 

These teams are up against US rivals and teams from 5 other countries.  At least two of the teams are already in discussion with NASA about using their technology for astronauts.  So even if they don’t win the X Prize, the technological innovation and push is very likely to turn science fiction into reality.

And this isn’t the first for Star Trek tech.  We’ve already seen the flip communicator turn into real phones and Google’s language translator would have been a natural fit for Lt Uhura.

As one of the doctors pursuing the Tricord X Prize put it: "'Star Trek' was not TV, it was a business plan,"

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