abstract background pattern resembling fiber-optic wires

The Human Touch

By Brian W. Simpson

There is a boy in Philadelphia who, despite his age and considerable physical challenges, can write two poems in French and one in English. He patiently scribes them in flowing calligraphy. He also has a repertoire of four drawings—one of a Chinese temple.

The boy is 2 feet tall and 200 years old. He is an automaton designed by a Swiss watchmaker named Henri Maillardet. An ineffably complex series of levers, rotating brass disks and wind-up motors choreographed by Maillardet allow the boy to write and draw so precisely, as a recent New York Times story explained.

The boy, who inspired the movie Hugo and “lives” in the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, must have wowed the early 19th-century crowds who came to see him.  Even by today’s standards in technical innovation, it’s impressive to watch a mechanical boy write poems in elegant longhand. Like the amazed automaton-watchers, we are enthralled by the technology that our digital age produces with ever-increasing speed.

Public health is not exempt. In this special issue, we describe some ways that high- and low-tech tools are revolutionizing public health: the possibilities of mHealth, the power of big data, the marriage of geographic positioning systems with epidemiology, the sheet-metal pill counter that simplifies field research, the global reach of Web-based education…

It’s easy to get carried away with nifty gizmos that offer solutions to our many problems. So, in addition to reporting on some stunning applications of technology to health, we’ve spiced this issue with a healthy dollop of skepticism. (Technology, after all, has given us nuclear weapons and spam.) Environmental health expert Ellen Silbergeld, for example, warns us about rushing to use nanoparticles without first investigating potential health risks. And when we sought the perspectives of some public health legends (Edyth SchoenrichD.A. Henderson and Al Sommer), a surprising theme emerged. In our haste to invest in wondrous technologies, they point out, it’s too easy to forget human beings. People know the right questions to ask, people find meaning in raw data and people still can communicate with a simple touch.

Technology alone will take us only so far. We also need to invest in people who imagine, create, teach, research, collaborate, evaluate and care. We have the inside track, after all, on what it means to be a human being full of messy complexities. And, with technology’s help, we can best help others find their way to health.