China has been pushing the dystopian aspects of its society fairly aggressively of late. The country has rolled out a social “credit” monitoring system, in which citizens are rated based on the social media posts and actions of both themselves and their friends and family. Those with low social credit scores have been banned from purchasing domestic flights, banned from certain schools, prevented from using credit cards, and blocked from certain jobs. Now, one Chinese firm is claiming to have gone yet farther, and monitors the brainwaves of its employees through sensors embedded in caps they’re required to wear.
It might sound like a joke, but the company, Hangzhou Zhongheng Electric, is absolutely serious. According to the South China Morning Post, Hangzhou claims it uses this information to monitor stress levels and adjust break times and work assignments. The SCMP report says, “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.”
Hangzhou Zhongheng Electric claims that it has boosted company profits by roughly 2 billion yuan ($315 million) since it began in 2014. There’s reason to be exceptionally skeptical of that number. First, there’s absolutely no evidence that the information gathered by EEGs can actually be used for the purposes the company says it’s using it for. Attempting to read emotional state information from an EEG based on data gathered from an in-cap sensor is anything but straightforward, as this paper details. It’s theoretically possible to use an EEG to gather some information about what a person is feeling in any given moment, but it’s not nearly as simple as slapping some electrodes on someone’s skin and measuring how “happy” they are feeling.
This type of dystopian monitoring is precisely the kind of tool that could undermine employee morale rather than raising it. Employers obviously have an interest in the health and well-being of their employees, but it’s not hard to see how this kind of information could be used to abuse or threaten individuals. It’s also not at all clear how these states could be correlated to useful information about employees as a group. Not only are people going to feel different baseline levels of stress, but people often feel stress while at work for reasons unrelated to the job itself. Meanwhile, some people simply don’t become particularly stressed, no matter what they’re doing. Trying to create any kind of “standard” people are supposed to adhere to is simply nightmarish.
The idea that one’s employer is entitled to brainwave information about someone’s mental state is as close to thoughtcrime as we’ve ever been. There are no benefits large enough to justify this kind of intrusion into people’s personal lives. There is no acceptable reason for giving an employer access to what someone is thinking or feeling. It’s a virtual certainty that Hangzhou Zhongheng Electric is exaggerating both the effectiveness of this technology and the money they’ve made by using it, but in the off chance that someone actually invents it, let’s be clear: This is not a capability that has any business being deployed in any company, anywhere, for any reason.