Brain Scanning In The Workplace. It’s Here.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

This may well be another case of just because we can does’t mean we should. Are you comfortable having say, a helmet on your head that scans your brain and uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the background to help you be more productive? The companies doing this claim it will also make you happier at work. This raises some serious questions and shows how complex digital technologies are becoming in our sociocultural systems.

First, let’s take a look at two companies that have begun to commercialise brain scanning technology and apply them to the workplace. The Israeli company, InnerEye, who’s using this tool to help identify “targets”, such as guns for security screening in airports. It’s based on the premise that your brain may see a gun in the background before you consciously recognise it and select it. It is also being used in medical applications for tumour recognition.

The other company is San Francisco based Emotiv. They’ve been around over a decade and have focused mostly on supporting neuroscientists work. But now they have a new product, MN8, which uses a pair of Bluetooth ear buds to scan workers brains. For productivity. It tracks focus and levels of stress. This data on teams is delivered in anonymised aggregate form to managers. So, here we are. Emotiv claims they’re aware of the dystopian possibilities of their technology. But awareness doesn’t necessarily mean putting the right processes in place to avoid it.

The first issue that probably comes to mind is privacy. But it gets more complex quickly and slides down that dystopian spiral of a rabbit hole too. Can we trust that the technology doing this won’t also be used by employers to track your productivity, measure it and validate your performance? Could you be fired for not being focused and on-task? Could it be used to monitor your emotions and bring bias to bear for job performance was well? Is it even ethical? Does it impact free will and human agency? What are the other possible unintended consequences?

Emotiv is working with some companies, including real estate services company JLL to run experiments on worker productivity, stress and distractions. With the stated aim to help companies understand how to develop a new form of workforce that may well be hybrid; in and out of office work.

There are many applications of this technology can be beneficial, especially in healthcare, security and safety in some industrial settings. And there is one organisation that is attempting to work with the complex issues of privacy, workers rights and other human rights issues, The Institute of Neuroethics (IoNX). While they’re doing excellent work and have even developed guidelines on how the technology should be ethically used, they’re only guidelines. They can’t force a company to implement or abide by them. Most companies likely will. But what about those that don’t?

We already know that AI has lead to numerous instances of racial and gender bias. Now we have brain scanning technology that’s already in the workplace. Are governments actively looking into this? There is some indications the EU Parliament is starting to look. But most governments are focused more on privacy. Few are looking at other technologies like brain scanning to consider worker and peoples rights.

Brain scanning technology is a part of what’s been termed “bossware”, which is employee monitoring technologies for productivity and performance. Key stroke tracking has been used for many years, but we’re seeing other tools, such as this, camera tracking for work-from-home employees and other applications.

While it all can seem somewhat dystopian, it is unlikely that we’ll end up in that type of nightmare situation. As workers push back and perhaps unions find a renewed sense of where they should focus on workers rights and governments start to wake up to these issues, we’ll figure them out. There are some excellent applications for brain scanning technologies. It’s all about figuring out how to apply them the right way. But much as any technology humans develop, it may be a bit messy getting there.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious