The Timeless mobile app, created by Emma Yang, uses an artificial intelligence-powered facial recognition system to help Alzheimer’s patients identify people in photos. Photo: Agence France-Presse
The Timeless mobile app, created by Emma Yang, uses an artificial intelligence-powered facial recognition system to help Alzheimer’s patients identify people in photos. Photo: Agence France-Presse

How a 14-year-old Hongkonger built an app to help Alzheimer’s patients connect with their loved ones

  • The Timeless app developed by Emma Yang helps Alzheimer’s patients identify people in photos
Topic |   Start-ups

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The Timeless mobile app, created by Emma Yang, uses an artificial intelligence-powered facial recognition system to help Alzheimer’s patients identify people in photos. Photo: Agence France-Presse
The Timeless mobile app, created by Emma Yang, uses an artificial intelligence-powered facial recognition system to help Alzheimer’s patients identify people in photos. Photo: Agence France-Presse

For many teenagers, their lives typically might revolve around schoolwork and spending time with friends. Not so for Emma Yang.

At the age of 14, the Hong Kong-born Yang has already created her own mobile app for Alzheimer’s patients, which has impressed the likes of Microsoft Corp founder Bill Gates and Alibaba Group Holding executive vice-chairman Joseph Tsai.

The Timeless app, which Yang spent two years developing and refining, comes with several core features. It uses an artificial intelligence-powered facial recognition system, from Miami-based start-up Kairos, to help Alzheimer’s patients identify people in photos and remember who they are.

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It also allows photos to be grouped by individuals as well as provide a picture-based phone book, which enables a user to tap on photos to call or text a person.

“What really motivated me to [work on Timeless] was seeing how many people were reacting to it, saying I would love to have this for my own family members [have Alzheimer’s],” Yang said.

She is part of a growing number of teenagers who have studied software coding and become entrepreneurs at a young age, as more students in Hong Kong are steered towards STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education to help foster a culture of innovation in the city.

The inspiration to develop an app that would help Alzheimer’s patients connect with their loved ones came to Yang at the tender age of 12, when her grandmother – who suffers from the chronic neurodegenerative disease – started forgetting things like what she ate for dinner and Yang’s birthday.

“I wanted to create something to help people like my grandmother stay connected with her family,” Yang said. It was a task she was well-prepared to undertake.

“I started learning coding when I was around six, and later began developing games and websites,” Yang said. The young software developer said winning a competition, in which she developed an app to identify whether a head injury could be a concussion, led her to appreciate the impact of technology on people’s lives.

“I thought [then] that if I know how to code, I should also have the ability to help people,” she said.

Yang’s father, who works in the technology industry, was the one who introduced her to computers and Scratch, a block-based visual programming program targeted at kids.

Still, Yang’s life as a young software developer and entrepreneur has not been without formidable challenges. She cited as an example how venture capitalists have not taken her work seriously. Some of these people even suggested that she exhibit her project at science fairs or “put it online and see how it does”.

Undeterred by those setbacks, Yang started an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign in March last year to support her Timeless app project. That effort raised more than US$10,000.

“I think perseverance is really important,” Yang said. “Never let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t be in the field that you want to be in the most.”

At present, Yang works with an international team that includes a designer in California and a developer based in Cologne, Germany. The chief technology officer of Kairos, the AI start-up whose technology is used in the Timeless app, is now Yang’s adviser.

I wanted to create something to help people like my grandmother stay connected with her family Emma Yang, creator of Timeless app

She urged other young, aspiring entrepreneurs to believe in themselves because the teenagers of today will be tomorrow’s leaders.

“Technology has been able to empower kids from all walks of life to put their ideas into action,” she said. “As long as you get out there and put yourself out there, tell people about your idea and … find out who’s on board and can get behind it, you’ll [eventually] find that team of people.”

New York-listed Alibaba is the parent company of the South China Morning Post.