Brain computer interfaces (BCIs) are slowly moving into the mass market. In the next few years, we might be able to control our PowerPoint presentation or Excel files using only our brains. And companies may want to use BCI technology to monitor the attention levels and mental states of their employees. Obviously, there are myriad ethical questions and concerns surrounding the use of BCI technology in the workplace. The technology is well ahead of the policies and regulations that would need to be put in place. But, it’s time for business leaders to start building a BCI strategy as soon as possible to address the potential risks and benefits.
Imagine if your manager could know whether you actually paid attention in your last Zoom meeting. Or, imagine if you could prepare your next presentation using only your thoughts. These scenarios might soon become a reality thanks to the development of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs).
To put it in the simplest terms, think of a BCI as a bridge between your brain and an external device. As of today, we mostly rely on electroencephalography (EEG) — a collection of methods for monitoring the electrical activity of the brain — to do this. But, that’s changing. By leveraging multiple sensors and complex algorithms, it’s now becoming possible to analyze brain signals and extract relevant brain patterns. Brain activity can then be recorded by a non-invasive device — no surgical intervention needed. In fact, the majority of existing and mainstream BCIs are non-invasive, such as wearable headbands and earbuds.
The development of BCI technology was initially focused on helping paralyzed people control assistive devices using their thoughts. But new use cases are being identified all the time. For example, BCIs can now be used as a neurofeedback training tool to improve cognitive performance. I expect to see a growing number of professionals leveraging BCI tools to improve their performance at work. For example, your BCI could detect that your attention level is too low compared with the importance of a given meeting or task and trigger an alert. It could also adapt the lighting of your office based on how stressed you are, or prevent you from using your company car if drowsiness is detected.
A Toronto-based startup called “Muse” has developed a sensing headband that gives real-time information about what’s going on in your brain. As you can imagine, the startup already has a “Corporate Wellness Program” to “help your employees lower stress, increase resilience, and improve their engagement.” Other headbands on the market also use proprietary sensors to detect brain signals and leverage machine learning algorithms to provide insights into the engagement levels of users/workers. They can track whether someone is focused or distracted. Theoretically, this could help individuals in their day-to-day tasks, by evaluating which tasks should be tackled first based on your attention level. But, there’s also huge potential for abuse (more on this below).
This ability to monitor (and potentially control) attention levels creates new possibilities for managers. For example, companies could have access to a specific “BCI HR dashboard” in which all employees’ brain data would be displayed, in real-time. Are we going to see supervisors monitoring the attention levels of their colleagues? At the end of each annual performance review, are we going to also analyze and compare attention levels thanks to our BCIs? Your brain information may be of interest to your employers, allowing them to keep an eye on how focused you are, and allowing them to adapt employees’ workloads accordingly. Again, there is much potential for abuse.
I also expect more professional events to leverage BCIs in the near future. Indeed, research has shown that brain data can help predict which booths and activities people would visit. In the future, are we going to need BCIs to participate in business events?
Beyond the analysis of brain signals, some companies are already working on solutions that can actually modulate your brain activity. Researchers at Columbia University have shown how neurofeedback using an EEG-based BCI could be used to affect alertness and to improve subjects’ performance in a cognitively-demanding task. Despite these promising results, some experts, such as Theodore Zanto, a director of the UCSF neuroscience program, say that while BCIs based on EEG scans can determine a user’s attention levels, they are as of yet still incapable of differentiating what the user is actually focused on. In a January, 2019 Medium article, he says, “I haven’t seen any data indicating you can dissociate if someone is paying attention to the teacher or their phone or just their own internal thoughts and daydreaming.” Moreover, I realized through my own work that BCIs are also affected by user’s specific characteristics, such as gender, age, and lifestyle. Indeed, my team and I are trying to determine how brain activity can affect an athlete’s performance. According to some research, “psychological factors including attention, memory load, fatigue, and competing cognitive processes, as well as users’ basic characteristics such as lifestyle, gender, and age, influence instantaneous brain dynamics.” Experts believe that around “15-30% of individuals are inherently not able to produce brain signals robust enough to operate a BCI.” Obviously, this situation can lead to wrong results and ultimately bad decisions from companies. BCIs still have a long way to go, and much improvement is needed.
Another use case for BCIs at work is related to the ways we interact with machines and devices. Indeed, I predict that in the future, the most “dangerous” jobs will require the use of BCIs. For example, some BCI companies have already used EEG to analyze signals of drowsy driving. Companies with workers who operate dangerous machinery may require their workers to be monitored in the same ways. I believe that someday, it will be mandatory for pilots and surgeons to wear a BCI while working.
The idea of humans interacting with devices is a pillar of BCIs, as BCI technology provides direct communication between the brain and external devices. In the next few years, we might be able to control our PowerPoint presentation or Excel files using only our brains. Some prototypes can translate brain activity into text or instructions for a computer, and in theory, as the technology improves, we’ll see people using BCIs to write memos or reports at work.
We could also imagine a work environment that adapts automatically to your stress level or thoughts. BCIs can detect the mental state of a worker and adjust nearby devices accordingly (smart home utilization). Concretely, when stressed, your headband could send information (using Bluetooth) to your computer so that it starts playing your “calm” playlist, or your Slack can turn to “do not disturb” mode while your next appointment can be automatically cancelled. Obviously, this scenario raises questions about privacy. Would you feel comfortable knowing that others can know precisely how you feel mentally? What if this information could be used against you? What if this data could be modified by someone else without your approval?
Researchers are also experimenting with “passthoughts” as an alternative to passwords. Soon, we might log into our various devices and platforms using our thoughts. As described in this IEEE Spectrum article, “When we perform mental tasks like picturing a shape or singing a song in our heads, our brains generate unique neuronal electrical signals. A billion people could mentally hum the same song and no two brain-wave patterns generated by that task would be alike. An electroencephalograph (EEG) would read those brain waves using noninvasive electrodes that record the signals. The unique patterns can be used like a password or biometric identification.”
As you can imagine, there are myriad ethical questions and concerns surrounding the use of BCI technology in the workplace. Companies who opt to use BCI technology can face massive backlash from employees, not to mention from the public. When it comes to collecting brain data, the potential for abuse is frightening: Even when used with the best of intentions, companies could risk becoming overly dependent on using brain data to evaluate, monitor, and train employees, and there are risks associated with that.
BCIs aren’t a perfect technology — there’s no telling what sort of mistakes or mishaps we’ll encounter as companies and individuals begin to use these devices in the real-world. What’s more, BCIs — like any technology — can be hacked. Hackers can access a BCI headband and create/send manipulated EEG data. A hacker could also intercept and alter all data transmitted by your BCI. It’s possible that a hacker could steal your “passthoughts” user credentials and interact with your devices (laptop, car, etc.). These risks can directly impact our physical integrity. Brain data could also be stolen to be used against you for extortion purposes. The potential for serious abuse is significant. When companies begin to use and analyze brain data, how will they prioritize privacy and data security and meet the industry’s top standards for protecting employee data? Who will ultimately own the data that’s collected? And what are employees’ rights when their companies begin to roll out these technologies? Needless to say, the technology is well ahead of the policies and regulations that would need to be put in place.
Still, the technology is slowly moving into the mass market. A growing number of startups and large tech firms are working on safer, more accurate, and cheaper BCIs. I expect to see business leaders embracing this technology and trying to leverage brain data to achieve better work efficiency and greater safety. I recommend that business leaders start building a BCI strategy as soon as possible to address the potential risks and benefits.