Every once in a while, I find myself on a congested road in the coastal Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram, counting down the minutes (and sometimes, hours!) to the moment I will reach home. Commuting long hours to and from office is the one part of working weekdays that I have come to dread – it is tiring, monotonous and quite lonely. And it is after all human tendency to avoid things that are boring or tiring in nature.
Imagine, then, the drudgery that differently abled children face while undergoing repetitive physical therapy protocols for months and years on end, all in the hope of gaining some modicum of independence. UNICEF data says that at least 93 million children worldwide live with some form of disability. Unfortunately, these kids face a significant amount of marginalization and exclusion, with prevalent societal attitudes and lack of adequate policy support keeping them from realizing their right to good healthcare and education.
During a visit to a special school for differently abled kids in my neighborhood, I realized that despite the best intentions, the support infrastructure and institutions set up for the children are not able to stimulate them and bring out their innate curiosity. I saw kids struggling with their physiotherapy sessions, often crying out in pain, tired and weary due to the drudgery involved. And all their caregivers could do was watch helplessly, since there were very limited remedial mechanisms available for physical therapy. It got me thinking – what if we used technology to make a difference in the lives of these children?
Of late, digital technology has come to the aid of differently abled persons in the form of assistive technologies such as eyeball-tracking devices, voice-generating software, writing and typing aids, and so on. Gamified physiotherapy platforms are also available for people who are recuperating from surgery and are trying to regain their sense of motion. However, these protocols are not sufficient to directly nurture and build the physical and mental abilities of differently abled children from the ground up.
When it comes to neuro-motor disabilities, physical therapy protocols continue to be painful and rudimentary. This does not instill confidence in children, who need all the encouragement they can get at that age. The procedures are repetitive in nature and eventually become boring for them. Over time, the children lose interest in carrying out their exercises, and their improvement journeys get derailed.
This was one of the main concerns expressed by the parents and physiotherapists I interacted with at the special school. There was an unaddressed need to make physical therapy sessions exciting for children, motivate them to exercise and still achieve the desired levels of mobility; we needed to create something that would engage the kids as well as provide therapy. ‘Social innovation’ helped us service this need.
By integrating assistive technologies such as AAC devices with AI, sensors and virtual reality, TCS has been able to replicate physical training protocols for differently abled children in a gamified format, making training sessions fun and interactive. Through video games, children are encouraged to perform exercises such as lifting their arms or legs, walking from one spot to another and moving their arms and fingers. Meanwhile, based on the data generated by sensors, doctors can monitor their progress. These exercise suites can also be personalized based on the individual needs of the children and can be scaled across institutions.
While our exploration has so far been limited to physical rehabilitation, the same principles of gamification and social innovation can also be applied to control hyperactivity in children and improve their attention skills. Immersive environment trainings can help children learn daily activities such as brushing, bathing, eating and so on, making them independent and confident.
With each iteration of such gamification protocols, the quality of data emerging from the systems will improve, helping doctors get better insights each time. For instance, the system could deliver qualitative indicators of better health, such as mapping the ability to walk without crutches, or moving to a single crutch or even being able to perform an activity, such as eating unassisted. Feedback from the doctors could then go back into – and improve – the AI-powered system.
The other advantage of AI-based learning engines is that the platform can also be trained to translate the protocol into multiple languages for ease of use. AI-powered speech synthesizers can enable children to communicate in their own voice and tone, helping in the physical rehabilitation of those with cerebral palsy, which restricts free body movements. Further applications are also possible in cases of neuro-disabilities such as Parkinson’s.
These AI-powered iterations lead us to hope that conversations in the social innovation space will keep going, thereby helping improve millions of lives worldwide.
About the Author
Head, TCS Incubation Lab
Robin leads a team of young TCSers who architect viable and sustainable solutions to tackle key client pain points using rapid and lean agile models. Their solutions tap into technologies such as AI, robotics, augmented reality, virtual reality and IoT, among others. The highlight of Robin’s work is the technological enablement he provides for TCS’ social innovations and CSR initiatives.