On the original Star Trek, Dr. McCoy often used a device called a medical tricorder to swiftly diagnose disease in his patients. While I'm sorry to report that no such tool was created this week, researchers at Purdue University did unveil a portable sensing system that can rapidly analyze chemical components in external environments.

The device is about the size of a large car battery and can test samples in a matter of minutes without harming the material being investigated. Among its more immediate applications will be testing foods for dangerous contaminants, including E. coli, which, as you might recall, hammered Taco Bell -- a subsidiary of Yum! Brands (NYSE:YUM) -- this past December, when dozens of its customers fell victim to green onions contaminated by the nasty little bacteria.

One advance that could help with better medical diagnosis was, however, revealed this past week when researchers at the University of Colorado announced they had developed a new technique to generate laser-like X-ray beams.

In more practical terms, the advance implies that X-ray resolution could be improved a thousandfold. This, in turn, suggests that cancer cells and other diseases could be detected at an extremely early stage.

Beyond the immediate impact of transforming the diagnostic equipment market for such companies as General Electric (NYSE:GE) and Siemens (NYSE:SI), it could also have a huge impact on downstream treatments. The sooner certain diseases are caught, the better the prospects that the disease might be cured without expensive drug regimens or radical surgery. For instance, such technology could reduce the need for everything from future breast-cancer drugs such as GlaxoSmithKline's (NYSE:GSK) Tykerb (which is presently awaiting FDA approval) to the number of Intuitive Surgical's (NASDAQ:ISRG) da Vinci robots, which are now used to perform almost half of all prostatectomies.

Tea time for robots
Speaking of robots, this past week also witnessed a robot manufactured by Kawada Industries pouring a cup of tea, clearing the cup away, and then washing it. The exercise is yet further proof that Japan is serious about using robots to serve its growing elderly population.

I've written before about Japan taking a leadership role in the area of robotics, but this demonstration -- taken together with other robotic advances from Honda (NYSE:HMC) and NEC -- offers additional evidence that investors in U.S. robotic companies such as iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT) need to keep an eye on the Far East, because this is where a good deal of the action in the emerging field of robotics is occurring.

To this end, according to an article from The Korean Herald, the head of South Korea's Information Ministry confidently predicted this past week that within a decade's time, micro robots will be conducting cardiovascular surgery.

Watch the future of advertising ... because it might be watching you
If the thought of a micro robot fixing your heart leaves you a little uneasy, this next item is not likely to make you feel much better. Researchers in Australia announced that they have developed a system called TABANAR, or Targeted Advertising Based on Audience Natural Response. Dubbed "agile retail," the technology is aimed at advertisers looking for a competitive edge in today's crowded advertising space.

The technology works like this: Imagine walking into a grocery store and spotting an advertisement for, say, beer. The system's camera would catch your eyes, and if it deemed that you were sufficiently interested in the product, it would proceed to make you a personalized pitch for the product.

Obviously, such a system arouses a number of privacy issues, but on the assumption that these issues could be addressed, it's not unreasonable to assume that major retailers who are already experimenting with radio frequency identification tags -- companies such as Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy -- might be interested in using such a system to bolster sales.

This is because in addition to discerning a customer's age and sex and making specialized pitches, the system could potentially "read" what else was in your grocery cart and deduce other items you might be inclined to purchase. For instance, if you had already bought beer, it might run an advertisement for a salty snack.

Foolish final word: Adopt a science-fictional way of investing
The future is arriving faster all the time. To return to Star Trek for a moment, it's easy to forget now that when the show originally aired, it was supposed to have taken place in 23rd century. Yet today, we already have sliding pneumatic doors and compact cell phones that look suspiciously similar to Captain Kirk's communication devices. Soon, it appears as though tricorder-like devices will be here.

If you're wondering what's next, that's a good question, because I didn't even get around to discussing a few other advances from this past week, including news that scientists in China had succeeded in planting electrodes in the brains of pigeons to control their flight, while scientists in Japan reported growing teeth from single cells.

Isaac Asimov, the author of I, Robot, once said that statesmen need to adopt a "science-fictional way of thinking" to deal appropriately with the world. Based on this week's advances, I would add that investors must also adopt a similar mode of thinking, because things that many of us might have thought wouldn't occur until the 23rd century might be just around the corner.

Interested in a look back at the past few weeks' worth of progress? Check out these articles:

Intuitive Surgical and iRobot are Motley Fool Rule Breakers selections. GlaxoSmithKline is an Income Investor pick. Wal-Mart is an Inside Value pick, and Best Buy is a Stock Advisor selection.

Fool contributor Jack Uldrich is the author of two books on nanotechnology. His latest book, which deals with the exponential growth of a number of different technologies, will be published this fall. He owns stock in iRobot, Intuitive Surgical, and GE. The Fool has a strict disclosure policy.