"Please state the nature of the medical emergency."

I don't know about you, but I got pretty attached to hearing that phrase after a while. The Emergency Medical Hologram was one of my favorite characters on Star Trek: Voyager, especially after season three or so, but it wasn't until much later that I realized what an amazing idea the EMH was in general. Think about it: at the flip of a switch (or a simple voice command, as the case may be), you could have an instant doctor in the house who never got tired, was impervious to infection by even the most virulent agents, and could never mix up his patients or forget a fact... as long as everything was working right.

On the downside, the EMH had hardware and software limitations. That "E" was there for a reason: he was only meant to be used in an emergency, and wasn't designed to be left switched on for prolonged periods of time without suffering memory degradation and other serious bugs (imagine trying to use an emergency escape pod as a permanent home; it'd work for a little while, but it's just not designed for long-term habitation). Of course, the crew of the Voyager figured this out and wrote a software upgrade for the EMH, but it was a close call; his program took up so much room and processing power they couldn't copy him. And of course, the rest of the ship outside sickbay was never outfitted with holo-emitters, so he could never leave — not until he got his portable emitter, but that's a whole other story.

What would happen if you could fix the computing power problem? Assuming you had the right computer parts and a decent portable holo-emitter, you'd be able to assemble an instant "doctor in a box" that could be shipped anywhere. It would be perfect for relief missions: a Federation starship arriving at the site of a plague or a disaster at some remote colony could beam these down to assist medical staff. Your ship's doctor would arrive first, then activate the portable EMH units to a chorus of "Please state the nature of the medical emergency." With sufficient experience, an army of EMHs might even obviate the need for human first responders entirely!

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Say what you want about Voyager's EMH (and there is plenty to say), one thing we never doubted was his vast library of medical knowledge and procedures. "Wait a minute," you might say, "we have a vast library of medical knowledge and procedures right here in the year 2015! Why can't we build a virtual doctor?" Maybe you should ask Ensign Harry Kim and Lieutenant Tom Paris, who tried to build an EMH from scratch after sending theirs off-ship; it didn't go super-well.
"What's he doing?"
"I think he's reciting Gray's Anatomy."

It turns out that having a library of knowledge is just half the solution; you also need a complex set of algorithms that can receive input, sort through all the necessary data, and arrive at the correct solution. That set, it turns out, may be closer than you think. Who remembers Watson, IBM's "cognitive technology" that made such a splash on Jeopardy?
It turns out IBM's been busy making a platform out of Watson, hybridizing and specializing it for various industries. One place they went: Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where they're busy developing Watson Oncology.

Once it's all up and running (staff at Memorial Sloan Kettering have started training it), Watson Oncology will be able to read through a patient's entire history, examine clinical data, cross-reference it with thousands of cases, and take into account the latest research to come up with recommendations for treatment — all with the speed and efficient impartiality of a computer. They claim it won't necessarily take the place of a doctor; it would be like having a super-intelligent assistant. To me, that sounds like an Emergency Oncology Hologram…minus the "emergency" and "hologram" parts, of course, but let’s not quibble.

Time will tell if this approach ends up working, but I like the sound of Watson Oncology so far. And if it turns out to be viable, why not expand the Watson platform to other areas of medicine? Watson Gastroenterology? Watson Cardiology? Watson Pediatrics? Put enough of them together and you might end up with something of a holy grail in the medical world: a generalist who's also an expert in everything. All we'll need then is the ability to project a solid holographic image! I assume by that point, it'll be able to teach itself how to sing opera.
Jon Sung is a contributing writer for XPRIZE and copywriting gun-for-hire to startups and ventures all over the San Francisco Bay area. When not wrangling words for business or pleasure, he serves as the captain of the USS Loma Prieta, the hardest-partying Star Trek fan club in San Francisco.

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