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A 'Star Trek' inspired X Prize for revolutionizing health care

Called the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, the bounty will be won by the first team that creates a mobile platform capable of most accurately diagnosing a group of 15 diseases across 30 patients in three days.

The "Star Trek" universe may be beloved by millions, but it's entirely fictional. Yet one element of Gene Rodenberry's timeless creation may actually help people with their health care decisions in real life.

The problem faced by millions of people around the world, especially in the third world, and in rural areas of the first world, is that there's not always a doctor around to help figure out what's wrong with you--and sometimes, one isn't even necessary. Sometimes, the right technology could help us determine what's going on in our bodies.

That's the rationale behind the latest X Prize, known as the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, which was announced at CES today, and which will award a $10 million bounty to the first team that can create "a mobile platform that most accurately diagnoses a set of 15 diseases across 30 [patients] in three days."

X Prize Foundation CEO Peter Diamandis.

The new prize is a collaboration between the X Prize Foundation and the Qualcomm Foundation. The winning teams, according to a release about the project, will "leverage technology innovation in areas such as artificial intelligence and wireless sensing--much like the medical Tricorder of Star Trek fame--to make medical diagnoses independent of a physician or health care provider. The goal of the competition is to drive development of devices that will give consumers access to their state of health in the palm of their hand."

Teams hoping to win will also have to "deliver this information in a way that provides a compelling consumer experience while capturing real time, critical health metrics such as blood pressure, respiratory rate, and temperature. The winning solutions will enable consumers in any location to quickly and effectively assess health conditions, determine if they need professional help and answer the question, 'What do I do next?' when it comes to their health."

This X Prize has been in the works for some time, though it's not known how long Qualcomm has been part of the equation.

In 2010, X Prize Foundation CEO Peter Diamandis told CNET about the organization's plans for what was then being called the AI Physician X Prize:

One [future X Prize] in the life sciences area that I'm very interested about is an artificial intelligence physician, called an AI Physician X Prize, and this would be for design of an AI physician that can speak and listen in natural language and can diagnose a patient as good or better than a panel of 10 board-certified doctors. It's a very measurable, objective test. And it's An X Prize that Ray Kurzweil and I have worked on defining together, and one that we're looking for a benefactor or corporate sponsor to underwrite.

The implications of that are that by the end of 2013, 80 percent of the world's populace will have a cell phone, and anyone with a cell phone can call this AI and the AI can speak Mandarin, Spanish, Swahili, any language, and anyone with a cell phone then has medical advice at the level of a board-certified doctor, and it's a game change.

Clearly, then, Qualcomm is the benefactor that Diamandis was talking about at the time.

Other X Prizes, like those to make the first privately funded spaceship, have been successful, so there's little doubt there will be a large number of teams that seek to win the new prize. How long it will take is anyone's guess. But Diamandis has told CNET that the general idea behind a full X Prize--versus X Challenges--is that it will likely take between three and eight years for a team to come up with the winning formula.

Given that health care is such a problem the world over, and that many people go either undiagnosed or rush to the hospital unnecessarily, here's hoping that the winner of this prize comes along sooner rather than later.