Computer, Run Program

By Jon Sung | Stardate 69053.8 | Earthdate 01.01.1970

So here’s the situation: you’ve got a medical emergency, but for some reason sickbay is out of bounds — maybe the turbolifts and transporters are down, or a quarantine is in effect, or the entire medical staff was mistakenly given the same time off. Where are you gonna go?

The bridge might be an option. The odds of there being an officer on duty who’s got at least some emergency medical training are fair, but what about all those exploding consoles?

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Maybe you should try Ten-Forward. As an open gathering place with plenty of room and easy-to-move furniture, it often gets used as a triage center during shipboard emergencies. But what if there’s no doctor there either?

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Friends, I submit to you that despite the potential for danger (someone should really take a look at beefing up the security around changing the safety protocols), the holodeck is actually the second-best place to go in case of a medical emergency. Seriously!

First off, there’s the simple matter of having total control over your surroundings. Do you need a soft, fluffy bed? A humid atmosphere? Low light? The relaxing sounds of the ocean? Honestly, there’s nothing stopping you from creating a copy of sickbay itself, though if your ship didn’t leave spacedock with an emergency medical hologram, you’d still have to find a living, breathing doctor.

Customizable environments are great, of course, but you could also use the holodeck to create your own tools; we saw Lieutenant Barclay figure this out after an encounter with a neighborly Cytherian probe. Is that where we bump up against the limits of holotechnology’s medical applications?

Of course not.

Here’s where we turn to the intrepid (heh) crew of the USS Voyager and their problems with the Vidiian Sodality. On their first encounter, a Vidiian used a wicked handheld combination of phaser and transporter to literally snatch the lungs right out of Neelix’s body, and it was only the quick thinking of the EMH that saved his spotted Talaxian hide. Since time was of the essence and finding a compatible donor for a lung transplant (not to mention the operation itself) was out of the question, the EMH took advantage of Voyager’s holoemitter-equipped sickbay and created a set of holographic lungs for Neelix.

While they were an impressive feat of both innovation and improvisation, Neelix’s holo-lungs weren’t without a slight hiccup. Not only did Neelix’s lungs plug into his circulatory system in thousands of tiny capillary-sized places, they physically expanded and contracted with each breath, and the computer just couldn’t keep it all straight if he kept moving around. In order to maintain the connection, Neelix had to lie still at all times or else risk death by suffocation. It wasn’t the most exciting existence in the quadrant by a long shot.

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That wasn’t the only time Voyager’s crew turned to a holo-solution for medical help. When a wounded alien attacked chief engineer B’Elanna Torres and tried to use her organs to sustain its own life, they conjured an expert exobiologist and his lab in the holodeck to help the EMH figure out how to pry it off without killing her. They were able to consult with each other at length and even attempt simulated procedures, an approach that helped them save both lives in the end.

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Holomedicine of this type seems like the best of all possible worlds: you get to engage an expert in conversation, explore a problem from all angles, and try different approaches over and over without dire consequences for your patient(s). Not only that, but you get practical experience that’s literally hands-on — it’s one thing to watch something being done, but another entirely to actually do it yourself.

I only bring this all this up because we may be on our way to holodecks sooner than we thought: back in December, researchers at the University of Bristol announced a touch feedback technology breakthrough in the form of invisible, touchable shapes formed in midair from ultrasound pulses. The setup uses precisely-calculated waves of ultrasound that overlap at points in the air you can feel through your skin, which can then be moved around to create shapes. Of course, right now the shapes are invisible, but this is only the first step; imagine higher-resolution ultrasound rendering paired with an augmented-reality visor and 3D motion controls. In their announcement, the researchers imagine a use case where surgeons are able to see and feel the contours of a tumor, but think about what an amazing teaching tool this would make: you could learn anatomy, perform dissections, and even practice surgery without getting your hands dirty.

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This is such a great concept that I now refuse to believe they don’t use it at Starfleet Medical to train their own personnel, using simulations of the best of the best. Somewhere there’s a hologram of Dr. Leonard McCoy teaching not only dermal regenerator techniques, but the most effective ways for a ship’s doctor to remind a captain what his or her job actually is, in a course titled “Xenosurgery 101: I’m a Doctor, Not a Bricklayer.”


Jon Sung is a contributing writer for XPRIZE and copywriting gun-for-hire to startups and ventures all over the San Francisco Bay area. When not wrangling words for business or pleasure, he serves as the captain of the USS Loma Prieta, the hardest-partying Star Trek fan club in San Francisco.

XPRIZE is an innovation engine. We design and operate prize competitions to address global crises and market failures, and incentivize teams around the world to solve them. Currently, we are operating numerous prizes, including the $30M Google Lunar XPRIZE, challenging privately funded teams to successfully land a robot on the Moon’s surface, and the $10M Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, challenging teams around the world to create a portable, wireless, Star Trek-inspired medical device that allows you to monitor your health and medical conditions anywhere, anytime. The result? Radical innovation that will help us all live long and prosper.