Scotty . . . beam me up

January 22, 2003

By Greg Freiherr, Editor, gfreiherr@cmp.comIt happens every year. Someone in some company exhibiting at the RSNA meeting, responding to my question about their vision of the

By Greg Freiherr, Editor, gfreiherr@cmp.com

It happens every year. Someone in some company exhibiting at the RSNA meeting, responding to my question about their vision of the future, waxes poetic about how doctors eventually will have the same gizmo as Dr. McCoy on "Star Trek."

I've had enough practice teeing up responses to such statements that the people making them probably don't see my agony. Yes, miniaturization is a trend. Yes, imaging modalities are being hybridized. But to see the future, we should stay in our own galaxy.

The future is not that hard to see, depending on how far out you're looking. Next month and next year are pretty clear, as they typically involve the next iterations of technology: better spatial resolution, faster scanning, smaller boxes. The picture starts getting a little hazy a couple years out. It really fuzzes up from there on.

But there are ways to improve the clarity. I've found that predictions veer most from reality when "futurists" extend current technologies as if their development would be unaffected by other factors. Magazines in the mid-

20th century predicted anthropomorphic robots that cleaned the house and highways in the sky populated by flying cars. This kind of thinking may have given birth to the Jetson family but, beyond Saturday morning cartoons, it had little further impact.

The future three or five years out will take shape not from a single trend, as in the case of hybridization, or even a couple together, which might give rise to Dr. McCoy's medical tricorder. It will come from the interaction of different technologies and the trends that affect their development.

Today, people talk about molecular imaging as the means for unmasking early signs of disease. But I wonder what would happen if these and other data were used to digitally clone individual patients. Such elaborate computer simulations would predict how disease develops and indicate ways to stop it under varying conditions. As new data were added, the simulation would be updated and the course of treatment adjusted.

Something like this already exists, albeit not in medicine. The Earth Simulator, created by researchers in Japan, models the effects of factories belching smoke and differing temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico.

The future of imaging may already be clear. But we might have to look outside imaging to see it.