Chinese companies are monitoring worker’s brain activity using special helmets in order to reduce stress, manipulate break times with the ultimate goal of increasing productivity. It may sound like something out of a science-fiction movie but it is very much true.
It has been reported by the South China Morning Post that it is being carried out on an unprecedented scale. Sensors are concealed withing work helmets and lightweight hats to constantly monitor brain activity and feed the data into a computer. The computer uses AI algorithms to detect “emotional spikes such as depression, anxiety or rage”. This data is used to make changes to the work schedule and to alter the working conditions.
State Grid Zhejiang Electric Power is one such company relying on brainwave reading helmets and it is paying off according to Cheng Jingzhou. “There is no doubt about its effect,” Cheng said, adding that the program has boosted company profits by about US$315 million since it was implemented, in 2014.
Similar brainwave monitoring programs have been implemented at other large companies like Hangzhou Zhongheng Electric or Ningbo Shenyang Logistics, and they’ve all reported increased productivity and improved financial earnings.
According to Jin Jia, an associate professor of brain science and cognitive psychology at Ningbo University’s business school, this technology lets the company know when an employee is highly emotional, which is invaluable to the company, especially if he is in a key position that could affect the performance of the whole team.
“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,” Prof. Jia said, adding that workers were suspicious of the brainwave monitoring caps at first, but eventually got used to them. “They thought we could read their mind. This caused some discomfort and resistance in the beginning. 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.”
Like all technology, it has a clear benefit. Similarly, it can also be used for personal motives or gains and there is a large faction of people that are worried about the breach of privacy and the use of the collected data for other sinister means.
“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,” Qiao Zhian, professor of management psychology at Beijing Normal University, said. “The selling of Facebook data is bad enough. Brain surveillance can take privacy abuse to a whole new level. The human mind should not be exploited for profit.”
The brainwave reading helmets are the same in China and the West, but China is the only one implementing the technology on the large scale and using it to increase productivity.