Five 23rd Century Health Technologies We Already Have (And Two We Never Will)

by Tera Tuten on May 20, 2013

futuristic health technologies As academics, industrial designers, futurists, and researchers will tell you, science-fiction has played more than a passing role in informing real life technology.

Starting around the late 1960s, you could argue that the field in which this has been most evident (besides space travel) is in the advancement of medical technology.

So when will all those cool pieces of medical tech from Star Wars, Iron Man, Star Trek, The Avengers, and so on be reality? Turns out, some of it already is…
medical tricorder

Medical “tricorder”

We may still be searching for a true portable all-in-one diagnostic device but there are a few more modest versions on the market already.

What’s more, the iPad has been an absolute game-changer – while portable computer technology has been more than adequate for many other industries, only recently did 10” tablets weighing only about 1 lb – including the first iteration of the Apple device – make powerful mobile healthcare computers useful.

In just 3 years, iPads have replaced clipboards, allowed healthcare professionals to better engage patients, and improving both prep and recovery for surgeries.

vital signs displayMedical vital signs display

Wouldn’t it be great if there was more than a chart and a few numbers on a display at your patient’s bed – A living, breathing graphical readout of how a patient is doing each and every second like in a 23rd Century “sickbay” is currently available.

Of course, digital displays have been at bedsides in hospitals for decades. Not only have they caught up with sci-fi visions, they’ve actually surpassed some of them.

Instant biological analysis

Do we really already have that handy phone-sized device Tony Stark uses to measure his blood-toxicity in Iron Man 2?

In an earlier post, we looked at a toaster-sized version of such a biodiagnostic tool currently being tested in labs on the International Space Station:

robotic surgeryMedical robots

Remember that umbrella-looking robot that monitored Luke Skywalker in that column of “recovery water” in The Empire Strikes Back, and the creepy skeleton-looking robot that fitted said Jedi with his artificial arm at the end of the movie?

In many ways, such futuristic medical robots are already in use: Surgical robots like the da Vinci system performed more than 200,000 operations in 2012 alone, Carnegie Mellon’s snakelike “CardioArm” can cut and cauterize dozens of areas of a heart and pull out leaving only a 1 cm opening.   Meanwhile, the Canadian-made Neuroarm (and doctors) performed the first robot-assisted brain surgery. Last year? The year before? Nope, that happened more than a half-decade ago.


Would you believe that this stand in for needles in the 23rd Century world of Star Trek has been a reality since 1975? There were even instances of such technology being used by accident as early as the 1800s!

So why aren’t we all getting Dr McCoyed through the arm, rather than being stuck with a sharp metal tube for each injection? Turns out until recently, hyposprays were injections were potentially as painful as the needles – the spring-loaded or compressed-air injections themselves were painful and could leave bruising.

Hypospray-like devices have been available for prescription for migraine sufferers for the last decade (e.g. and even available for the last few years for patients to use at home in some cases (like this one for migraine medication that’s taken by injection

Already, needle-free injection is a more than $3 billion-dollar industry and universities across America are actively trying to improve this technology. (We may even soon be able to get an injection via laser.)

dnaPersonalized medicine

After the initial flurry of optimism when the Human Genome Project and Celera Genomics succeeded in mapping out the first person’s genetic code, the full picture in terms of creating medicine custom-tailored to an individual got progressively less promising as the years went on.

Now, more than a decade after cracking the code of life, we’ve realized that the relationship between our genome and sickness is monstrously more complex than we thought and all the “junk DNA” computers wouldn’t likely has important biological functions

What’s more, a landmark 2012 study that looked at depression drugs concluded that “none of the more than 500,000 genetic markers predicted treatment outcome.” So will personalized medicine never exist? At the very least, the prospect of it existing anytime soon is likely being oversold.


nanotechnologyA.I. in nanomedicine

Nanotechnology (any manipulation of matter on an atomic and molecular scale) is one thing that will certainly play an increased role in medicine.

Making tools and mechanisms smaller will be useful in clinical and surgical settings but that’s not what the public thinks of when they think of nanotechnology (if they’re actually thinking of nanotechnology.)

Microscopic robots that can think for themselves – a whole other matter entirely – have so far been only the stuff of science-fiction and while we may someday be able to create such technology, the prospect of microscopic truly self-aware machines (that can potentially even replicate themselves) is enough of a safety and ethical liability to render this futuristic medical tech prospect an extreme possibility at best.


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