A team led by National Taipei University of Technology (NTUT) researchers yesterday unveiled smart communication systems for people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), aiming to help them reconnect with people and the world.
As people with the neurological disease experience gradual loss of motion and communication skills, they often feel that they are souls trapped in their bodies, as making a simple utterance such as “I love you” can be demanding, Minister of Science and Technology Chen Liang-gee (陳良基) told a news conference at the university.
The Ministry of Science and Technology offered NT$7 million (US$223,172) to the NTUT team, as part of its Breakout program, which began last year, subsidizing projects that use technology to solve social problems.
As project head, NTUT Department of Mechanical Engineering professor Liu Yi-hung (劉益宏) and researchers from NTUT and Shih Chien University, as well as therapists from Taipei Veterans General Hospital, developed devices to help people with more severe ALS symptoms.
The team developed an eye-tracking system that allows lamps to be turned on or a call for help to be made and a system that meshes a brain-computer interface with voice synthesis, Liu said.
The brain-computer interface was tested on five people and had an average precision rate of 85 percent for analyzing brain waves, he said, but added that there is a long way to go before the system can be commercialized.
Developing such tools for people with a rare disease is challenging due to the limited number of potential users, he said, adding that hopefully more businesses would devote resources to help advance the technology.
Without proper assistive technology, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking — who died last year aged 76 after spending most of his life all but immobilized by the disease — would not have been able to leave his research legacy, Taiwan Motor Neuron Disease Association chairman Lin Yung-yi (林詠沂) said.
Many people with ALS cannot express themselves to the world, Lin said.
Businessman Huang Ching-hsiang (黃景祥) said that his wife, Anita Chen (陳俊芝), was diagnosed with the disease nearly 13 years ago and that she lost functions most quickly in the third and fourth year.
Although her degeneration has slowed, he often needs a lot of time to understand his wife’s speech, Huang said.
The ministry should also support more development plans for carer robots to ease the burden on caregivers, he said.
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