Tireless TCM robot therapist to relieve physicians' load

Emma, the robotic TCM massage therapist, demonstrating a massage at Kin Teck Tong yesterday. While the human therapist retains control of the treatment plan and consultation, Emma does the hard labour of kneading.
Emma, the robotic TCM massage therapist, demonstrating a massage at Kin Teck Tong yesterday. While the human therapist retains control of the treatment plan and consultation, Emma does the hard labour of kneading. PHOTO: DON WONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Meet Emma, your new massage therapist - she will never get tired and never forget what you need.

Emma, short for Expert Manipulative Massage Automation, is a robot which can assist Chinese physicians and physiotherapists by giving targeted massages. It was unveiled yesterday by one-year-old technology start-up AiTreat.

Its founder, Mr Albert Zhang, 32, created Emma to address the shortage of trained therapists here.

Physicians will retain control of the treatment plan - consulting with patients and assessing what therapy is needed - while Emma will step in to do the heavy lifting.

"Our aim is not to replace the therapists who are skilled in sports massage and acupoint therapy, but to improve productivity by enabling one therapist to treat multiple patients with the help of our robots," explained Mr Zhang, who graduated from Nanyang Technological University's (NTU's) double-degree programme in Biomedical Sciences and Chinese Medicine in 2010 and is a licensed TCM practitioner.

Emma is essentially a robotic arm with a 3D-printed massage tip that runs on proprietary software.It is capable of highly articulated movements, uses a 3D-stereoscopic camera to see, and has a customised, fully rotatable massage tip.

Emma's sensors and diagnostic functions will measure the progress of the patient and the exact stiffness of a particular muscle or tendon.

Detailed diagnostics can be uploaded to the cloud and progress monitored. Therapists can then adjust the treatment programmes.

Patient trials began last week at Kin Teck Tong's Sports Science and Chinese Medicine Clinic at the Kallang Wave Mall.

Since then, Emma has treated 50 patients for conditions such as stiff neck and shoulders, muscle pulls and tennis elbows.

National basketballer Leon Kwek, 20, who received a massage said using robotics in TCM would help relieve the workload of therapists. "For a team sport like ours, 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 was incubated at NTUitive, NTU's innovation and enterprise arm, after AiTreat received a Spring Singapore Ace Start-up grant.

The firm will now focus on developing a second-generation robot that is more mobile and compact.

"What we have demonstrated is the possibility of having a tireless clinical massage therapist that always delivers high-quality treatments," Mr Zhang said.

AiTreat plans to rent out the therapist robots to other TCM clinics .

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2016, with the headline 'Tireless TCM robot therapist to relieve physicians' load'. Print Edition | Subscribe