Last week, it emerged that companies in China are keeping tabs on their employees using brain-scanning helmets.
Employees in factories, the military, and transportation have been given headgear with built-in EEG sensors as part of a government-sponsored project to monitor the emotional states of workers and boost productivity. These sensors monitor the electrical activity in the brain of the wearer before sending the data to an algorithm, which then interprets this information into a particular emotion. The idea is a creepy one: Your boss or line manager knows that you're depressed, anxious, or angry – and can adjust your work schedule accordingly.
According to a report in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), at least a dozen businesses and factories in China are already using the technology.
One such company is State Grid Zhejiang Electric Power in Hangzhou, which has (apparently) seen a financial boost of about 2 billion yuan ($315 million) since adopting the technology in 2014. Cheng Jingzhou, the man responsible for overseeing the program at State Grid Zhejiang Electric Power, told the SCMP, “There is no doubt about its effect.”
But does it actually work? The original report is hazy on details and probably overstating its effectiveness. According to MIT Technology Review, the answer is "probably not".
In truth, EEG technology just isn't that advanced – at least, it isn't that advanced yet. For starters, non-invasive EEG is "very limited" and would have a hard time detecting brain patterns, let alone interpreting them as different emotions. It can also be confused by outside signals (for example, a mobile phone), which would distort the result and produce a false reading.
This means the real issue is one of privacy. It is not so much can companies monitor their employees' emotional states, but should they? Aside from the false readings produced by a technology that is not quite perfect, the system is open to abuse by employers with less benign intentions.
Qiao Zhian, a professor of management psychology at Beijing Normal University, refers to Big Brother's "thought police" in 1984.
“There is no law or regulation to limit the use of this kind of equipment in China," he said, reports the SCMP. "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.”
However, the horse may have already bolted on this one. Companies in China and elsewhere are already using wearable devices such as Fitbits, Nike+ FuelBands, and Jawbone UPs to measure the health and productivity of their employees.