Teen’s alzheimer’s app sparks “Timeless” memories

Global Business

Emma Yang decided to use her coding skills to help her grandmother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

A young coder decided to use technology to help her grandmother cope with Alzheimer’s disease. Emma Yang created an app called “Timeless,” using artificial intelligence and facial recognition. Now the teen hopes her effort will help other families.

CGTN’s Nina Edwards reports. 

By the age of five, Emma Yang was learning to play piano. She’s the winner of international competitions and has twice performed in New York’s Carnegie Hall. By eight, she was playing cello. But this Hong Kong-born teen has more than just musical talent. She can code.

“I began coding when I was six- years-old when my dad introduced me to a programming tool called, Scratch, where you can drag & drop different blocks of code to make a program,” Yang said. “I was amazed at the extraordinary things you could create with code.”

“My grandmother essentially really raised me, especially because, you know, my parents were working during the day,” said Yang. “So after school, she would pick me up and I would, she would look after me while I did my homework and watched TV. And then we would talk together.

She says the close relationship she has with her grandmother is important to her and it’s been a struggle to maintain it over the distance between her current home in the United States and her grandmother’s home in Hong Kong.

“We’ve tried to cope by setting up visual aids around the house,” said Yang. “She has a whiteboard that her caregiver updates regularly that has the date, her home address, appointments that are coming up and my dad’s phone number. She also has an iPad that she uses to look at photos of my parents and me regularly to help remind her of us. She uses these often but still gets confused and needs constant reminders. As a family member of an Alzheimer’s patient, it’s hard to feel in control of the situation. Coding is a place where I have complete control over what’s going on. So, I developed, Timeless.”

The app uses facial recognition to identify callers for the user. While Emma had some experience with app programming, she knew she needed expert advice. After a long search, Emma found Cole Calistra, the chief technology officer for a new startup called Kairos. The company was using AI technology. So, Emma wrote him an email.

“What Emma was looking for was first of all just an access to a developer account that she could experiment with and, try out our service for free, when she’s integrating facial integration into her app,” said Calistra.

Calistra and his team of engineers partnered with Yang, giving her coding and development advice. He said she didn’t need much help. But the team is there whenever she needs.

Emma says the technical advice and mentoring she’s received has been integral to developing Timeless.

“If I hadn’t found, you know, this facial recognition and Kairos, really this wouldn’t have taken off,” said Yang. “And it’s really the driving force behind Timeless.”

Timeless is still in development. But since winning the $50,000 grand prize in a startup challenge co-hosted by Women Who Tech and Google, Emma can move to the next step, getting Timeless into the hands of patients.

“In the beginning, it was just for me and my grandmother, I thought,” said Yang. “But you know, as this grew, I saw this feedback from online and social media and articles that, you know, this is actually an idea that a lot of people thought would be great for their families and people that they knew who had Alzheimer’s and which is really motivating for me because it’s not something that’s just for me, but for a whole community of Alzheimer’s patients.”

“To see the quality and the thoughtfulness that Emma had put into her app was amazing if she had been a college student or a graduate student, never mind at her age,” said Calistra.

While Emma may be a teenager with big dreams, don’t let her age fool you. She believes coding can change the world and, with dedication like hers, she just might be right.