Technology is allowing us to monitor our health and fitness like never before. Our smartphones can track every step we take. Dedicated monitors like the Fitbit analyze our movement and our diets, even our watches can now tell us if we’re spending too much time on the sofa.
But how would you feel if your boss insisted you wore a device that would allow your brain to be monitored?
It’s a question Professor Nita Farahany put to the World Economic Forum in Davos. Professor Farahany is a leading thinker on the ethical, legal and social implications of emerging technologies.
Monitoring our minds
She believes the monitoring of workers needs careful consideration, and says the following are important questions to keep in mind:
- Are there any limits to the connected workplace?
- Are there any concerns about the connected workplace?
- Is there any way in which you wouldn’t want either yourself or an employee to be connected?
- Are there any limits to the kinds of information we can gather in order to make our workforces more productive in order to make our overall society more productive?
There is already plenty of evidence that workers resent being monitored by technology.
Professor Farahany cites the example of grocery business Tesco, which uses electronic armbands to track the movements of stock pickers in its warehouses in Ireland. The armbands direct staff members around the warehouse and tell them which item to collect. They take a lot of the administration out of the job by automatically logging inventory rather than staff carrying clipboards to record items manually.
The armbands made the job more efficient and the staff more productive. And, as Professor Farahany notes, the staff hated them.
Big Brother is watching
“They felt like this was Big Brother watching them. And they really didn’t like it, even though in many ways it did make their jobs easier.
“But they didn’t like the sense in which even their bathroom breaks were being tracked.
“Well, too bad you might think. They shouldn’t be taking unscheduled breaks. It’s better for workforce productivity.
“But is it better for morale? Is it better for individuals to feel as if their every movement is scrutinized?”
If a simple device like Tesco’s armbands can stir up such powerful resentment, how might more sophisticated wearable devices go down with workers?
Technology that allows our bosses to monitor our brain activity is already here. The SmartCap is an Australian invention designed to monitor levels of fatigue in truck drivers and operators of heavy machinery in the mining industry.
What our brains tell our bosses
It works by detecting and analyzing the tiny electrical discharges produced in the brain. The company says its objective is to save lives.
All very laudable, but Professor Farahany says these kinds of monitors can provide much deeper levels of information.
“These EEG SmartCap devices have many applications beyond mere drowsiness, we can start to track things like...which times of day you’re most productive, when you’re paying attention and when you’re not, what you’re focusing on…whether or not you are starting to suffer from cognitive decline, whether you have signs of early dementia, whether or not you’re starting to become a very expensive person to employ at a company.”
The end of privacy?
The implications for the use of data mined from our brains are becoming clear. Safety, productivity and performance can be improved. But can ethical and privacy concerns keep pace with technology?
Professor Farahany thinks we need to consider new laws to protect against the abusive use of brain monitoring at work: “There is no such thing as cognitive liberty. There is no such thing as a truly protected freedom of thought.
“What if what we’re really talking about is the total end of privacy?
“What if the last bastion of freedom, your brain, is no longer so free after all?”
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