From Fantasy to Engineering: We Build the Real World from Imagination

From Fantasy to Engineering: We Build the Real World from Imagination

It started with a pair of salt and pepper shakers. A simple pair of stainless steel salt and pepper shakers were bought in a store and used as props for the early medical sensors employed by Dr. “Bones” McCoy in early Star Trek episodes. Bones would pass them over the patient’s body and pronounce a diagnosis. This rapidly led to the more advanced Tricorder and to the computer-based sick bay we are all familiar with. I will claim here that this imaginative vision gave impetus to serious thought among physicians and engineers on how to develop such devices in the real world. We are now witnessing a cascade of electronic medical devices and a living demonstration of how much of the emergence of this world of technology comes from human imagination.

So much of what constitutes the world around us has first emerged from human imagination—indeed from human fantasy—and a great deal of that has initially been disparaged by “realists” or by economic interests that feel threatened by potentially disruptive technology. Of course, not all wild ideas are or can be realized, but so many of them travel the course from fantasy to art or film to speculation and experiment facing down denial or even outright opposition to prototype and successful demonstration and on to development, deployment and acceptance. I can even remember arguing with colleagues about whether Java would find its way into embedded systems. They had reasons why it would not, but engineers and programmers were determined to make it so and today it can be found almost everywhere.

Now we have a very serious—serious in terms of offering a 10 million dollar prize—to develop a tricorder, the handheld diagnostic device that also comes from Star Trek. Qualcomm is sponsoring a global competition to develop an instrument capable of diagnosing 13 required core conditions and five required vital signs. The required conditions are: anemia, atrial fibrillation, COPD, diabetes, hepatitis A, leukocytosis, pneumonia, otitis media, sleep apnea, stroke, tuberculosis, urinary tract infection and absence of condition. Contestants then must choose three conditions from an optional list that includes melanoma, osteoporosis and food-borne illness among others. All this must be incorporated in an instrument weighing no more than five pounds. The FDA is participating to offer regulatory input and post-competition review. Final judgement and awards are scheduled for early 2016. In its own statement, Qualcomm states, “. . .the XPRIZE Foundation and the Qualcomm Foundation seek to make 23rd century science fiction a 21st century medical reality that will empower consumers to take control of their own healthcare and improve the quality of life for people everywhere.”

Oh, but it doesn’t end there.

Now NASA appears to be putting serious effort into investigating the possibility of a warp drive. Warp drive is what the popular press had been calling a mysterious phenomenon that could more properly be called a microwave thruster that appears to generate momentum without pushing against anything else. The “Cannae Drive” demonstrated by chemical engineer Guido Fetta works by bouncing microwaves inside a cavity designed with little wells along the bottom edge. When microwaves are bounced around inside the cavity, they created an imbalanced, upward thrust.

A NASA test has revealed a measurable thrust of 30-50 micronewtons, which while not a lot, seems to go against the laws of classical physics that say there should be no thrust at all. So far, there is no satisfactory explanation for this thrust. There is some speculation that it may involve interaction with “the ghostly cloud” of quantum virtual plasma, the particles and anti-particles that are constantly appearing and disappearing in empty space. Once a phenomenon like this can actually be measured, there will be a push to understand it and once understood, there will be a push to exploit it for extremely fast space travel or the stabilization of satellites that do not need a heavy fuel load.

While such a drive, if developed, would not achieve superluminal speeds like the warp drives we have come to be familiar with, it would represent a definite advance—an advance that again was stimulated by fantasy and imagination. The fictional warp drive supposedly works by rapidly bending short chunks of space-time ahead of the ship. We still haven’t figured out how to do that, but don’t write it off just yet.

There are more things happening out there. We still are trying to figure out what ultimate shape the Internet of Things will take, whether, as some predict, artificial intelligence could turn on and dominate the human race. We are seeing the emergence of renewable energy, which seems to be gaining the economic upper hand over fossil fuels. We are seeing the increasing acceptance of electric vehicles. There are things cooking in labs all around us that may appear unexpectedly. So dare to dream . . . but then get busy and do the math.