Employees in  China wearing ‘brain surveillance devices’

Employees in China wearing ‘brain surveillance devices’

Ever wanted to get inside the minds of your best (or least effective employees?) What if there was a cap you could pop on to make that a reality?

Ever wanted to get inside the minds of your best (or least effective employees?) What if there was a cap you could pop on to make that a reality? Whilst it sounds a bit ‘Black Mirror’, it is, in fact, a possibility – as news came out today that at Hangzhou Zhongheng Electric in China workers are wearing lightweight, wireless sensors constantly monitor the wearer’s brainwaves and stream the data to computers that use artificial intelligence algorithms to detect emotional spikes such as depression, anxiety or rage.

This is producing data that management then uses to adjust the pace of production and redesign workflows, according to the company itself.

The company said it could increase the overall efficiency of the workers by manipulating the frequency and length of break times to reduce mental stress.

Hangzhou Zhongheng Electric is just one example of the large-scale application of brain surveillance devices to monitor people’s emotions and other mental activities in the workplace, according to scientists and companies involved in the government-backed projects.

Concealed in regular safety helmets or uniform hats, these lightweight, wireless sensors constantly monitor the wearer’s brainwaves and stream the data to computers that use artificial intelligence algorithms to detect emotional spikes such as depression, anxiety or rage.

These lightweight, wireless sensors constantly monitor the wearer’s brainwaves to detect emotional spikes such as depression, anxiety or rage.

 Technology is widespread

The technology is in widespread use around the world but China has applied it on an unprecedented scale in factories, public transport, state-owned companies and the military to increase the competitiveness of its manufacturing industry and to maintain social stability.

It has also raised concerns about the need for regulation to prevent abuses in the workplace.

The technology is also in use at in Hangzhou at State Grid Zhejiang Electric Power, where it has boosted company profits by about 2 billion yuan (US$315 million) since it was rolled out in 2014, according to Cheng Jingzhou, an official overseeing the company’s emotional surveillance programme.

Effectiveness is undoubted

“There is no doubt about its effect,” Cheng said.

The company and its roughly 40,000 employees manage the power supply and distribution network to homes and businesses across the province, a task that Cheng said they were able to do to higher standards thanks to the surveillance technology.

But he refused to offer more details about the programme.

Zhao Binjian, a manger of Ningbo Shenyang Logistics, said the company was using the devices mainly to train new employees. The brain sensors were integrated in virtual reality headsets to simulate different scenarios in the work environment.

“It has significantly reduced the number of mistakes made by our workers,” Zhao said, because of “improved understanding” between the employees and company.

But he did not say why the technology was limited to trainees.

The company estimated the technology had helped it increase revenue by 140 million yuan in the past two years.

One of the main centres of the research in China is Neuro Cap, a central government-funded brain surveillance project at Ningbo University.

The programme has been implemented in more than a dozen factories and businesses.

Jin Jia, associate professor of brain science and cognitive psychology at Ningbo University’s business school, said a highly emotional employee in a key post could affect an entire production line, jeopardising his or her own safety as well as that of others.

“When the system issues a warning, the manager asks the worker to take a day off or move to a less critical post. Some jobs require high concentration. There is no room for a mistake,” she said.

Workers ‘fearful’ initially

Jin said workers initially reacted with fear and suspicion to the devices.

“They thought we could read their mind. This caused some discomfort and resistance in the beginning,” she said.

“After a while they got used to the device. It looked and felt just like a safety helmet. They wore it all day at work.”

Jin said that at present China’s brain-reading technology was on a par with that in the West but China was the only country where there had been reports of massive use of the technology in the workplace. In the United States, for example, applications have been limited to archers trying to improve their performance in competition.

China could surpass competition using brain data

The unprecedented amount of data from users could help the system improve and enable China to surpass competitors over the next few years.

With improved speed and sensitivity, the device could even become a “mental keyboard” allowing the user to control a computer or mobile phone with their mind.

The research team confirmed the device and technology had been used in China’s military operations but declined to provide more information.

Thought police fears rife

Qiao Zhian, professor of management psychology at Beijing Normal University, said that while the devices could make businesses more competitive the technology could also be abused by companies to control minds and infringe privacy, raising the spectre of “thought police”.

Thought police were the secret police in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, who investigated and punished people for personal and political thoughts not approved of by the authorities.

“There is no law or regulation to limit the use of this kind of equipment in China. The employer may have a strong incentive to use the technology for higher profit, and the employees are usually in too weak a position to say no,” he said.

“The selling of Facebook data is bad enough. Brain surveillance can take privacy abuse to a whole new level.”

Lawmakers should act now to limit the use of emotion surveillance and give workers more bargaining power to protect their interests, Qiao said.

“The human mind should not be exploited for profit,” he said.

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