Emma is a massage therapist who specializes in treating athletes for conditions like tennis elbow, stiff neck, and back pain. She diagnoses her patients as she works, never takes a lunch break, and always remembers exactly what they need.
That’s not what’s special about Emma, though. Emma is short for Expert Manipulative Massage Automation, a prototype robot therapist for sports therapy.
Emma was created by AiTreat, a startup company founded by Nanyang Technological University graduate and licensed Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner Albert Zhang. The robot was developed as a solution to the shortage of licensed therapists in Singapore. Zhang says his goal is not to replace Chinese physiotherapists and physicians, but to assist them in providing more patients with consistently high quality care.
Emma has the possibility to help more than just athletes. Singapore, like the United States and Europe, is home to a rapidly aging population. As a very large demographic continues to age and suffer physical ailments such as arthritis, it is predicted that there will be a lack of medical care for them. Robotic tools such as Emma may allow therapists to treat more patients.
The robot therapist has already successfully treated more than fifty patients in trials at Kin Teck Tong’s Sports Science and Chinese Medicine Clinic. AiTreat plans to loan Emma to other TCM clinics, and is already developing a smaller, more portable version of the robot.
20-year-old Leon Kwek, a basketball player, was one of the patients who received a massage in the clinical trial. He is optimistic about Emma’s potential for helping practitioners treat entire sports teams like his own.
“It’s a lot of work for our sports trainers if they have to handle all 12 of us coming for treatment,” he said.
Emma has the appearance of a simple robotic arm with a 3D-printed massage tip at the end, but boasts revolutionary proprietary software that allows the robot to monitor treatment.
The robot is also equipped with a 3D stereoscopic camera which lets Emma see the stiffness of muscles and tendons, and record treatment progress. This information can be uploaded to a cloud for therapists to use to refer back to patients and adjust treatment programs.
Emma was developed at NTUitive, the enterprise and innovation arm of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, which nurtured AiTreat’s technology. Dr. Lim Jui, CEO of NTUitive, is pleased to see Emma emerging from NTU. He hopes to see many more NTU graduates follow in Zhang’s footsteps.
His optimism is not misplaced. Although the university is young, NTU is already one of the fastest-rising Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics universities that exist in the world. In the past two years, it has been ranked number one globally among universities less than 50 years old.
Emma is not the first impressive robot to come out of NTU. Just a few months ago, NTU gave the world a glimpse of Nadine, a friendly robot with artificial intelligence and a human appearance that may potentially be used as a companion.