Inching us one step closer toward robots taking over the world, a startup in Singapore has created an AI-driven machine that can provide highly customized massage therapy to patients. The robot is called Expert Manipulation Massage Automation, or “EMMA” for short, and was designed by the firm AiTreat to free up time for doctors of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). TCM incorporates all sorts of treatments, including herbal medicine, acupuncture, cupping therapy, Gua Sha skin scraping, and a method of massage known as Tui Na.

AiTreat's EMMA robotic masseuse was designed to free up time for doctors practicing traditional Chinese medicine.

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The robotic EMMA masseuse gives a patient a much-needed back rub.

Albert Zhang, founder and CEO of AiTreat, began his career as a trained TCM physician. He quickly found that delivering treatments was “tedious and repetitive.” He began formulating the idea of EMMA as a way for doctors to use their time more efficiently.

EMMA works on massaging one patient while a doctor simultaneously tends to another.

“One physician can only see one patient at a time, but with EMMA, the physician can operate two robots and see up to four patients simultaneously,” he told CNN.

While he doesn’t intend for robots to replace professional masseuses, Zhang says they can do the majority of the massage therapy, allowing their human counterparts to “focus on the 10 percent highly skilled part” and saving them from the exhausting strain on their muscles throughout the day.

Treatment room in which the EMMA robotic masseuse is kept.

“By using Emma to do the labor-intensive massages, we can now offer a longer therapy session for patients while reducing the cost of treatment,” said Zhang in the Robotics Business Review, adding that “the human therapist is then free to focus on other areas such as the neck and limb joints, which EMMA can’t massage at the moment.”

And EMMA can replicate human touch in her massage movements quite convincingly. Using sensors and 3D vision technology, the machine measures muscle stiffness and identifies pressure points. Having been programmed with thousands of data points like various body shapes and sizes and massage types, the AI machine can develop a custom regimen tailored to each patient’s meridian and acupoints. EMMA’s robotic arm also moves extremely methodically, with soft touch treatment modules warmed to a comfortable range of 100 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

“The principle of traditional Chinese medicine is all about personalized treatments,” Zhang explains, stressing that his smart machine is “highly flexible and customizable.”

Closer look at EMMA's robotic massage arm.

As an added safety measure, the force exerted by EMMA is limited to a maximum of 100 Newtons, or “an impact that will feel no more painful than getting struck by an [elevator] door (commonly 150 Newtons),” the company website assures. And patients always have complete control over the robot during the massage. They can adjust the strength of the movements as well as stop the treatment immediately at any point.

Zhang’s massage robot has been operating for over four years now, with 11 functioning versions of EMMA at eight different clinics in Singapore. To gain widespread acceptance of the AI masseuse, he is planning to conduct clinical trials in Germany, China, and Singapore to test her medical efficacy. He is already seeing great interest from practitioners in China and the US.

Dr. Albert Zhang poses proudly alongside his EMMA robotic masseuse.

“I think it’s only the beginning,” says Zhang. “I can see that with support from the physicians, from different countries, the robot will be better and better, and more and more people will benefit from this robotic technology.”