Has the future of health care already arrived?

I recently visited some friends who have young children, and they happened to be watching the Disney film Big Hero 6, which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature this year.

In the movie, a gifted young student develops a robotic “health care companion,” which can diagnose, treat and prevent illness. It walks, talks, doles out medications and comforts people when they’re blue.

Last week, I thought of this make-believe tech as I followed the story of the Apple watch and the hype about its implications for personalized health care. I’m not sold on all aspects of the watch, but it did humble me and spur me to think about how the time gap is shortening between what our culture’s dreamers and artists create and what actually becomes reality.

This isn’t because of a dearth of creativity. In fact, it’s the opposite.

Our biomedical scientists, engineers, doctors and technologists have always been brilliant creators, clearly. The difference is that today they are capable of harnessing and applying technological developments much more rapidly.

Consider, for example, that we can now map a human genome relatively inexpensively and in a matter of hours, compared with what first took a decade and billions of dollars. Or that last year Johns Hopkins became one of the first hospitals to implant a bionic eye into a patient. We also have patients who are using thought-controlled robotic prostheses that run on a brain-machine interface developed here. (Incidentally, Big Hero 6’s protagonist also creates a brain-machine interface allowing users to control robotic devices with their minds. The actual tech was completed in 2012.)

Has the future of health care arrived? Actually, I think it’s just beginning, and I believe it will be just as amazing as anyone—from any field—has ever imagined.

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