Science fiction can do more than predict the technologies of the future. It can inspire them as well. Case in point, the medical diagnostic devices built for the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE. The competition seeks to recreate the gizmo of the Star Trek TV and movie franchise that can get a quick read on a patient’s vital signs and show a user what’s ailing him or her.

I profiled three of the 10 teams who made it to the final round of judging in the Tricorder XPRIZE competition in an article this month in Desktop Engineering.

The head of one of those teams, team Final Frontier, is headed by Pennsylvania emergency room doc Basil Harris. From my article:

For Basil Harris, the challenge posed by the competition comes down to synthesizing his knowledge of emergency medicine, creating the right algorithms to codify it, and then spitting it back out in response to input from a patient. As far as he’s concerned, data-collection devices like heart monitors are secondary in importance to the algorithms. “They’re actually good in a number of categories,” he says of the algorithms, which run on an iPad app. “They’re not perfect across the board. But that’s even without taking the objective data.”

In other words, the artificial intelligence being developed by team Final Frontier can diagnose some conditions on its own simply by asking the right questions. The team has been able to fine-tune the system by conducting trials in the best possible environment — the ER itself.

All ten teams are due to submit working prototypes of their devices in June. From there, actual patients will get to test them for the next six months.

The team whose design does the best job of diagnosing a given set of ailments will score the $7 million top prize. Two runner-ups will get $2 million and 1$ million each.

The ultimate goal of the contest: commercial products that give patients unprecedented control over their own healthcare.

Another of the team leaders whom I interviewed for my article is another physician, Eugene Chan, who also heads the DNA Medicine Institute in Boston. Kara Miller, the host of PRI’s Innovation Hub also interviewed him recently, in a piece that aired last week.