On the surface, the production lines at Hangzhou Zhongheng Electric look like any other.
China is reading its workers’ brains in the name of efficiency
Uniformed workers construct sophisticated equipment for telecommunications and industrial firms.
But there’s one big difference: the workers are wearing caps which monitor their brainwaves.
This data gets fed back into the system, allowing the company to increase overall efficiency by altering the frequency and length of break times to reduce mental stress.
At State Grid Zhejiang Electric Power, also in Hangzhou, that selfsame technology has boosted company profits by about $315 million since it was rolled out in 2014, according to Cheng Jingzhou, an official overseeing the company’s emotional surveillance program.
“There is no doubt about its effect,” Cheng told the South China Morning Post.
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.
The technology is in widespread use around the world in hazardous industries such as mining, where it can be used to help prevent workers from falling asleep on the job.
But China has applied it on an unprecedented scale in factories, public transport, state-owned companies and the military.
Since 2012, brainwave reader products made by Australian company SmartCap have been in widespread use across countries including South Africa, Chile and Australia, especially to help stave off the effects of fatigue in the mining industry. The company says it has logged more than one million hours analyzing the brainwaves of workers.
But the unprecedented amount of data from users in China could help systems to improve and enable China to surpass international 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.
One of the main centers of the research in China is Neuro Cap, a central government-funded brain surveillance project at Ningbo University. The Ningbo research team confirmed the device and technology had been used in China’s military operations, but declined to provide more information.
Planes, trains and brains
Deayea, a technology company in Shanghai, said its brain monitoring devices were worn regularly by train drivers working on the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail line, one of the busiest of its kind in the world.
The sensors, built in the brim of the driver’s hat, could measure various types of brain activities, including fatigue and attention loss with an accuracy of more than 90%, according to the company’s website.
If the driver dozed off, for instance, the cap would trigger an alarm in the cabin to wake him up.
Zheng Xingwu, a professor of management at the Civil Aviation University of China, said China could be the first country in the world to introduce the brain surveillance device into cockpits.
“The influence of the government on airlines and pilots in China is probably larger than in many other countries. If the authorities make up their mind to bring the device into the cockpit, I don’t think they can be stopped,” he said.
“That means the pilots may need to sacrifice some of their privacy for the sake of public safety.”
But the tech’s widespread use has raised concerns about the need for regulation to prevent abuses in the workplace.
Qiao Zhian, professor of management psychology at Beijing Normal University, warned that while the devices could make businesses more competitive, the technology could also be abused by companies to infringe privacy.
“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. The human mind should not be exploited for profit.”
Lawmakers should act now to limit the use of emotion surveillance and give workers more bargaining power to protect their interests, Qiao said.