DeFlip Side #149: The “X” Factor

DeFlip Side #149: The “X” Factor

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

Ten years ago, I told you about mankind’s second giant leap in our race for the stars, thanks to the successful flight of SpaceShipOne.

The visionaries behind SpaceShipOne were vying for the $10 Million Ansari X Prize, which would go to the first team to privately finance, build and launch a spaceship able to carry three people 62.5 miles up into orbit, return them safely, and then do it again within two weeks—using the same spaceship.

Scaled Composites, the company that built SpaceShipOne, went on to win the $10 million and in the process launched the space tourism industry. They’ve since partnered with Richard Branson to form Virgin Galactic, which promises to take people into space for $250,000 a pop. So far more than 700 passengers have booked flights, including Stephen Hawking and Ashton Kutcher. And Branson says the first flight will go up by the end of the year.

It’s a truly remarkable advance, and the X Prize Foundation should be commended for jumpstarting innovation in space technology by exploiting humanity’s chief natural resource: greed.

$10 million and a healthy potential for profit are apparently big enough lures to get people on board with the X Prize Foundation’s lofty mission to spur “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.”

In the wake of SpaceShipOne’s success, the foundation has backed a slew of additional X Prize competitions, trying to drive advancements in everything from gas mileage to genome mapping. But two contests in particular are sure to capture the imagination of Science Fiction nerds like us.

Like, say, a new Apollo program. That’s the aim of the Google Lunar X Prize. Go big or go home right?

“The Google Lunar X Prize is a $30 million prize to land a robotic spacecraft on the moon and move across its surface. The total prize purse is $30 million and that’s the largest incentive prize ever.”

That’s Andrew Barton, technical operations director for the Google Lunar X-Prize, and in case you didn’t catch that, the prize is $30 million. This blatant sales pitch worked like crazy. When Google announced the competition in 2007 more than 30 teams from around the world answered the challenge. They’ve since been whittled down to 18, all vying to grab the cash. The next stage in the competition requires teams to reach technological milestones in lunar landing, mobility and HD imaging—all by September of this year.

Now, the government has been giving us endless lip service about returning to the Moon, as a staging ground for bigger missions to Mars and beyond. The Google Lunar X Prize Foundation has expressed many of the same goals, but with one key difference: they’re actually making progress.

But it ain’t just about outer space, folks. Though that’s where this next X Prize has its origins, sort of…

"He's dead, Jim."

“He’s dead, Jim.”

That of course is Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy, making his most famous diagnosis with the help of his nifty tricorder. It’s so nifty, in fact, that an outfit called the Qualcomm Foundation is offering $10 million to the first team that can make it a reality.

The Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize will go to the creators of a mobile medical diagnostic device that anyone can use—one that can take your vitals and diagnose up to fifteen diseases.

“If they had this at home, they could get that information when they require it, and it would really help them make better decisions about their health. The era of just putting blind trust in the medical profession, just listening to what they say, is over.” –Basil Harris, Final Frontier Medical Devices

“The experience at a doctor’s visit is psychological. It’s a comfort level. So I think our approach towards the tricorder provides that comfort level. And we’re trying to make diagnostic at home as easy as playing a game or watching a movie.”  –Babak Esmaeli-Azad, SMART McCoy

Those are the leaders of two of the tricorder teams, Final Frontier Medical Devices and SMART McCoy. Notice a theme there? Obviously, this X Prize strikes a specific nerve.

It’s no wonder when you consider the amount of scientists who cite Star Trek as their inspiration. But while we know that Star Trek communicators are directly responsible for the invention of cell phones, building a tricorder takes it to another level—like an “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” level.

The challenges to building a medical tricorder are boggling, and will require advances in everything from imaging diagnostics, to wireless sensing to artificial intelligence. Anyway, that’s what it says on the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize website, and how they plan to pull that off is beyond me. Bones?

"I’m a doctor, not an engineer!"

“I’m a doctor, not an engineer!”

Nevertheless, the competition is forging ahead, with a series of incremental goals and a strict timeline. Qualcomm will select finalists in August and wants concrete results by the end of 2015.

I honestly don’t hold out much hope for a working medical tricorder by the end of next year, but I applaud the X Prize Foundation’s audacity in setting such seemingly insurmountable goals and stoking enthusiasm for scientific advancement.

When you consider the amount of private investment and scientific research the X Prizes have generated the world over, you come to realize the limitless potential—and promise—of this pragmatic approach to scientific exploration.

The future may just get here sooner than we expect.



X Prize Foundation
Google Lunar X Prize
Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize