Within the last decade, we’ve seen incredible progress in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence.  Innovators have been seeking out ways to meld humans and machines and, in some areas, remove humans altogether. In robotics, we’re seeing delivery drones, security robots, and more. In AI, chatbots, self-driving cars, and voice recognition have all made significant strides.

Perhaps most importantly, advances in AI and robotic technologies within health care are improving patient treatment and care. One area that’s capitalizing on both technologies is physical therapy — with a particular focus on people who suffer from mobility issues due to neurological injury.

Bots are helping humans provide improved care

While traditional therapy methods still yield results, recent research around motor learning interference and motor memory consolidation has shown that the optimal way to treat patients with neurological disorders is through a collaborative effort between robots and human therapists. The robots focus on reducing physical impairments while the therapists assist in translating the gains in impairment into function.

According to the Worldwide Health Organization (WHO), 15 million people suffer a stroke worldwide each year, with the United States accounting for almost 800,000 of those instances. A third of those people — approximately five million — are left permanently disabled and in need of some sort of physical therapy or patient care to help them attempt to regain even a fraction of their original physical mobility.

The loss of motor skills is a common occurrence for stroke survivors, with impairment making it difficult to stand, walk, or complete simple tasks like tying shoelaces or squeezing a hand. Current care methods rely on physical therapists manually helping patients learn how to balance and strengthen muscles through a series of exercises and stretches. While this has certainly been an effective treatment over the past decade, traditional physical therapy for stroke survivors and others suffering from neurological injuries/disorders falls far behind what is possible when technology is integrated into the course of care.

The advancement of machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies, along with the evolution of robotics, has produced commercialized robotic therapy solutions with exceptional capacity for immediate interactive response. Consider this — a human therapist can likely only guide a patient through a handful of movements during a session, with little ability to measure movements that aren’t outwardly significant. A therapy robot can guide a patient through hundreds of movements during a session, and it can sense even the slightest response while adjusting to the patient’s continually changing physical ability.

AI is making therapy more intuitive

As robotics has elevated the way therapy is performed, machine learning and artificial intelligence have made the entire process smarter and more intuitive, thereby generating higher potential for patient recovery. These technologies allow robotic therapy systems to process an exponential amount of data and enable them to get “smarter” as the technology learns the patient’s capabilities.

If the patient is unable to move their hand in one direction, for example, they are gently assisted to initiate movement toward the target. If the patient has issues with coordination, the robot/AI combo can guide the patient through the physical movement in a way that ensures the patient is performing the exact movement in the correct way. As the patient gains strength and ability, the robots/AI provide less assistance, forcing the patient to put into practice what they have learned.

Most importantly, robotic/AI therapy intervention provides quantifiable feedback on a patient’s progress and performance in a way that a human therapist cannot. A stroke patient can fail to appreciate their results if they aren’t able to perform a grander movement, like fully lifting a finger or making a fist. Consequently, the patient can become dejected because they feel like they are not making progress in their recovery. But the data capture and sensor abilities of these technologies will show the actual incremental improvements that the patient is making minute by minute and day by day because it understands even the most subtle movements.

Technology can help with varying ailments

This technology is not limited to stroke survivors. Patients who have suffered spinal injuries resulting in paralysis or other afflictions detrimental to mobility can also benefit from robotics and artificial intelligence. Along with robotic therapy machines, there are also exoskeleton technologies that can assist in movements that would be impossible to do alone, such as standing, walking, and sitting.

These technologies utilize transmission systems in combination with sensors in the feet, position sensors in the joints, and inertial measurement units to feel how body weight is distributed. Combined with upper body information and movements, immobile patients can take steps “on their own.” The processed sensor data can provide information to predict a movement before it’s made, which allows the user to follow through with that action. Traditional therapy generally involves the therapist moving the patient’s limbs, or the patient struggling mightily with crutches or canes, whereas exoskeleton technology takes much of the physical burden off of the patient because of its ability to learn and predict movements.

The future of bots in physical therapy

To be clear, the human element of therapy is certainly not obsolete. The human connection between a patient and a therapist is still a hugely important factor, as this type of patient treatment often involves an emotional component that machines cannot yet address. Supplementing human contributions with the incredible innovation of robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, however, is critical to providing physical therapy patients the best care available.

Michal Prywata is cofounder, chief technology officer, and director of Bionik Laboratories, a robotics company focused on providing rehabilitation and mobility solutions to individuals with neurological and mobility challenges.