The human race is relatively young. The universe is estimated to be approximately 13.8 billion years old, but Homo sapiens have only been in existence for the last 200,000 years. To put that into perspective, humans are less than 0.002% the age of the universe, or rather, a blip in time. And although our species may be in its infancy, humans have already greatly advanced technologically in the short time that we have walked the earth. Once we developed a written language, we were able to begin efficiently passing on our knowledge extra-genetically from one generation to the next. It is the coalescence of this knowledge that made man into the distinguished being that he is today.
Currently, technology in medicine is pretty amazing. Doctors can get instant access to a patient’s entire medical record via tablet, pulse readings can be measured using a smartphone, and robotic assistants are already starting to be used in the operating room. This may not sound all that incredible since we are so used to this kind of technology in our lives, but considering X-rays were only discovered a little over 100 years ago, we’ve come a long way. Imagine what medical technology of the future will be able to do. Will robots replace surgeons altogether because of their meticulous accuracy? Perhaps we will one day cure all ailments, including aging, making accidents and murder the only causes of death. While we can dream up all the possibilities that tomorrow may hold without end, here are a few devices of the future that are very likely to one day become a reality, if, that is, they haven’t already.
The Medical Tricorder
Star Trek, while just fiction, has been prescient with much of its futuristic technology. The show began airing in 1966 and was set in the 23rd century aboard the starship Enterprise, which was dedicated to exploring the Milky Way galaxy. When Captain Kirk left the ship to survey a strange planet, he stayed in contact with his crew via a handheld device called a communicator, which activated upon being flipped open. Today, you will have trouble finding a single person who doesn’t own his or her own device that works much like a communicator. We just call them cell phones, and ours seem to have surpassed Star Trek technology, being able to do much more than just make calls. In 1966, the idea of an actual cell phone was just a fantasy to most people.
The medical tricorder was another Star Trek–created device that is quickly becoming a reality. A medical tricorder was an instrument equipped with sensors and analysis software that could quickly read a person’s vitals to assess a patient’s condition. Until now, the device had been mostly hypothetical. However, Silicon Valley–based company Scanadu has developed its own medical tricorder called the Scanadu Scout, which gives precise vital information about any human within seconds of contact. All a person has to do is touch the hockey puck–shaped device to his or her forehead to almost instantly receive biometric information, including temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, oximetry, ECG, HRV, and stress levels. The Scout can even conduct a urine analysis. A real-life tricorder could revolutionize how people monitor and understand the inner workings of their own bodies, bringing the tools of an emergency room to the comfort of their living rooms in one device.
The Bionic Eye
Even though our species has evolved to manipulate its environment (opposable thumbs, big brains, etc), a large portion of humans, perhaps even the majority, need some sort of corrective lens to enhance their vision, such as glasses or contacts. We’ve developed laser eye surgery to restore our vision back to 20/20, but can we take it even further? California-based company Second Sight has developed a retinal implant called the Argus II that can restore limited vision to patients affected by retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease, and possibly to those with macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in those aged 60 and over. The implant works with a wearable visual processing unit that sends images to a tiny electrode array implanted in the user’s retina. Electrical stimulation then sends visual information up the optic nerve to the visual cortex of the brain, allowing the user to see. While the implant doesn’t come close to restoring 20/20 vision, it works well enough so that someone who is blind can distinguish the shape of objects or when someone is walking past them.
This, however, is just the beginning of the bionic eye market. A team of researchers from the US and Switzerland have created a telescopic lens that can switch between normal and magnified vision. The lens is currently for patients with macular degeneration, but it isn’t hard to imagine that in the future the technology may be available to the average consumer, whether a person has impaired vision or not. People without medically related eye issues will be able to purchase bionic eyes to enhance their vision and will be able to zoom and see in infrared and in low-light situations.
Yet another Star Trek–inspired medical innovation comes in the form of the dermal regenerator, a tool used to instantly heal minor skin wounds, such as cuts and burns. Scientists have been able to regenerate sheets of skin for decades, but the problem is that it takes weeks for that skin to grow, and the new skin is extremely fragile. Jörg Gerlach of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine may have found a way to solve both of those problems. He developed a device he calls a skin-cell gun that looks something like a bulky air brush and can regenerate burned skin in a matter of days. The device works by taking a solution made from a burn victim’s healthy skin cells and spraying it onto the burns. One of the first trial patients to use the skin-cell gun had his second-degree burns completely healed in just 4 days.
NASA also announced last month that it signed 2 patent license agreements with GRoK Technologies LLC of Houston to develop biotechnology to heal injured astronauts. The first device, called BioReplicates, would be able to create human tissue, and the second, called Scionic, would address musculoskeletal pain and inflammation externally. NASA is interested in these technologies for their combined potential to regenerate bone and muscle. Future models of the devices could one day heal wounds instantly.
These medical technologies have the potential to become widely available in the foreseeable future, so just imagine what the field of health care holds for humanity this century, the next century, and beyond. Star Trek has certainly been spot on with many of their technological concepts. It will be interesting to see what else from the show will become a reality. Will warp drives and interstellar travel be next?
- Diaz J. Holy Spock! The Star Trek medical tricorder is real, and it’s only $150. Gizmodo website. December 7, 2012. http://gizmodo.com/5965143/holy-spock-the-star-trek-medical-tricorder-is-real-and-its-only-150.
- Homo sapiens. Smithsonian Institution website. http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/homo-sapiens.
- NASA technology to help develop noninvasive medical treatments. NASA website. February 7, 2014. http://www.nasa.gov/press/2014/february/nasa-technology-to-help-develop-noninvasive-medical-treatments/#.UyC3EoU-e1q.
Redd NT. How old is the universe? Space.com website. December 20, 2013.
- Scanadu website. http://www.scanadu.com.
- Scott C. Bionic eye implant will become available in U.S. in coming weeks. Singularity Hub website. November 19, 2013. http://singularityhub.com/2013/11/19/bionic-eye-implant-will-become-available-in-u-s-in-coming-weeks.
Silver C. Will bionic eyes be the next step in vision? Technorati website. July 17, 2013.
The skin gun. National Geographic website.