What if companies could monitor your concentration?

Schools in China are monitoring children’s concentration levels using AI – can we imagine similar moves at the workplace?

Measuring concentration in the classroom

Last October, the Wall Street Journal shared an article and video, illustrating how schools in China have been leveraging AI technology to monitor their students in the classroom [1]. Digital cameras are used to scan students who may be chatting behind a teacher’s back, facial-recognition robots take attendance, and Bluetooth wristbands track students’ movements on campus.

Of particular alarm was the use of headbands to measure students’ concentration. Using two electrodes behind the ears and one on the forehead, the headbands detect electrical activity in the brain. Real-time data on attention levels and analyses are sent to the teacher’s computer, and are then shared with the students’ parents. Surprisingly, this device was developed by Brainco Inc., a Harvard-backed startup based in Somerville, Massachusetts. They have sold over 20,000 headbands in China so far, and are set to expand even further.

(Source: Wall Street Journal. Click here to see the video)

Concentration as an independent variable

In addition to concerns around the accuracy and ethical implications of this device, this example highlights two issues around measuring concentration. First, it is worth critically examining the effectiveness of measuring concentration. The schools in the article seem to assume that high levels of concentration lead to better educational performance by students. However, while it is highly likely that there is a correlation, there are a host of other variables that impact performance, as well as variables that affect concentration itself. For example, there may be internal factors such as motivation, learning disorders and health conditions such as quantity and quality of sleep. There are also external factors such as engaging learning material and teachers, or the physical environment.

Secondly, due to this limited understanding of ‘concentration’, the article raises questions around how the data is used. The schools make it seem like concentration is just a matter of personal will. Therefore, instead of using the data to better identify ways for teachers to keep students better engaged, the responsibility for poor concentration is placed solely on the students. Thus measuring concentration alone does not provide insights that lead to actionable solutions without a more holistic understanding of what impacts concentration, and how that in turn influences performance.

Neurological monitoring at the workplace?

While this pilot was conducted in schools in China, it is not far-fetched to think that this type of data collection and monitoring could be adopted in workplaces here in the US in the future. In fact, organizations are already collecting an incredible amount of data to monitor employee behavior, and use the insights collected to prescribe measures aimed at improving efficiency, performance, or well-being. Beyond personal details, companies are collecting everything from communication data in order to improve efficiency and performance, to biometric and other personal health information for ‘wellness’ purposes.

Needless to say, the collection of neurological data takes the monitoring and governing of our bodies a step too far. It feels particularly invasive because the activity inside our brains is enigmatic, and something that is typically unknown to us. The notion that something that is so ‘deep’, both literally and metaphorically, could potentially be available to anyone, let alone employers, is deeply unsettling.

However, what if companies provided this as an option for employees, without providing the data to their supervisors or teams? I can imagine some employees would be curious to see patterns in their concentration (for instance, concentration dips in the afternoons after lunch), to make inferences and come up with strategies to be more efficient and effective.

‘Under-the-skin surveillance’ post-COVID19

Unfortunately, this type of invasive biological monitoring may accelerate as a consequence of responses to fight Covid-19. Yuval Noah Harari, the author of the global best-seller Homo Sapiens, recently wrote an op-ed for the Financial Times titled ‘The World after Coronavirus’ [2]. Harari highlights the dangerous shift to ‘Under-the-skin Surveillance’: the monitoring of people using biological information such as body temperature and blood pressure. As this becomes more normalized, resistance against biological monitoring may become more muted.

While privacy and security concerns abound, AI technology seems to be outpacing the implementation of regulations and other safeguards. It can feel like we are increasingly allowing machines to program us rather than the other way around. Furthermore, productivity appears to continue taking precedence over well-being. More than ever, we have to ensure that People Analytics remains in the hands of the people, by the people, and for the people.

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[1] Yifan Wang, Shen Hong, Crystal Tai , “China’s Efforts to Lead the Way in AI Starts in its Classrooms”, Wall Street Journal, Oct 24th  2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/chinas-efforts-to-lead-the-way-in-ai-start-in-its-classrooms-11571958181 <Accessed April 11th, 2020>

[2] Yuval Noah Harari, “The World after Corona”, Financial Times, March 20 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/19d90308-6858-11ea-a3c9-1fe6fedcca75 <Accessed April 11th, 2020>

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2 thoughts on “What if companies could monitor your concentration?

  1. This is very interesting. I wonder what these tools actually help students learn. Are you learning to focus better or learning how to demonstrate to the tracker that you are focusing? Put another way, what happens to these students when they take the tracker off – will they be able to maintain the gains in concentration they exhibit while wearing the tracker or do they sort of become dependent on it?

  2. Well, this is terrifying! I was already worried enough that my future children will be exposed to advertising or other attention-sapping stimuli while at school; I hadn’t even thought about the possibility of in-classroom monitoring technologies being used here.

    In addition to your concerns about the conceptualization of concetration as a matter of indivdual will, I also worry about the underlying relationship between concentration and better educational outcomes. While I wouldn’t endorse a student goofing off constantly, I don’t think the relationship is as simple as more concentration equals better outcomes. It’s too easy to think about the artists or scientists who had a breakthrough idea in a moment of absent daydreaming, or even of a student whose imagination, while running wild, inspires them to pursue a new line of study.

    While I agree that part of schooling is to teach students will power and self-discipline, I don’t believe that’s all it is meant to do. I worry that if we start measuring variables like concentration in isolation of the full picture of educational goals, we will solve for what we can see at the expense of what we cannot.

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