We don’t yet have a Star Trek tricorder or an Iron Man suit. But considering the stories in this issue and other recent news, that’s not for a lack of trying.
As contributing correspondent Laura Beil reports on Page 18, scientists are making progress in mimicking the abilities of Dr. McCoy’s handy medical sensor-computer by analyzing exhalations for signs of disease. A diagnostic Breathalyzer could give doctors a quick, noninvasive way to screen patients. The FDA has already approved breath tests for asthma and H. pylori infection, among others. And while measuring and cataloging the minute chemical changes that go along with different diseases poses a difficult challenge, scientists are now testing methods to identify people with heart failure, liver failure, tuberculosis and certain cancers. We may never get something quite as versatile as the medical tricorder (although there is now a $10 million tricorder XPRIZE competition focused on the development of a Star Trek–like diagnostic device). But we could end up with tools that will help people in the 21st century, not the 23rd.
Similarly, it sounded like a futuristic fantasy when staff writer Meghan Rosen invoked the exoskeleton worn in the Iron Man movies to pitch her story on brain-controlled robotic walkers. The U.S. Army has since announced a serious effort to build a prototype of the superhero’s armored suit that can repel bullets and offer a bionic assist so a soldier can run and jump while carrying 100 or more pounds of equipment. Rosen ended up telling a quieter if equally astounding story about exoskeletons that may help paralyzed people walk again. On Page 22, she describes how scientists are able to tap into patients’ brain waves using electrodes placed on the scalp. The patients are learning to command the robotic walker with only their thoughts. While the technology is not yet ready for widespread use, its potential is great. It would offer a noninvasive, and so less risky, alternative to the implanted brain-computer devices that have already shown great promise in helping the paralyzed.
More on what brain implants can do appears on Page 12. One study used implanted electrodes to restore mobility in rats with spinal injuries. The other hints at a way to build “smart” prosthetics enabled with the sensation of touch.
To me, none of these are quite examples of science fiction becoming real. But they do reveal how science fiction can inspire scientists and engineers to try things that sound outlandish or impractical — and that may well lead to radically new ways of doing things.