Today’s innovations from touchscreens to VR once seemed like mere magic decades ago. Now, the possibility of newer technologies entering the consumer market has shined an even brighter spotlight on how tech continues to shape our world.
Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) could become available to everyday consumers in a mere few years and could see us controlling our computer screens with our brains. Inevitably, this will impact all areas of life, but what will that look like in the future of work?
Some companies have expressed interest in using BCI technology. While the tool was once used to help paralyzed people control assistant devices, it’s now also used as a neurofeedback training tool to improve the brain’s performance. As a result, many companies may leverage this tool to enhance the performance of employees at all levels of a business. For instance, a personal BCI could detect if your attention span is low during an important meeting. The device could then trigger an alert allowing you to stay focused. If you’re stressed, it could adapt the lighting in your office.
A Canadian startup called Muse has recently developed a sensing headband that provides real-time data about the workings of your brain. Part of the company has its own Corporate Wellness Program that uses this technology to help employees be more active, lower stress, and increase their resilience. Other headbands being developed use sensors to detect and monitor brain signals through the help of machine learning algorithms, which provide feedback on users’ engagement levels. The ultimate goal is to help individuals with their daily tasks, allowing them to evaluate which projects to tackle first based on engagement levels.
This innovation can create new possibilities for managers. Companies would be able to install BCI dashboards where employees can view their brain activity in real-time. Businesses could potentially analyze these attention levels to adapt workloads, which has its pros and cons.
Modulating Brain Activity
Currently, some companies are working on ways to modulate brain activity. Research from Columbia University shows that neurofeedback from EEG-based BCIs can affect alertness and improve performance during mentally demanding tasks. Other experts believe that BCIs can’t yet distinguish what a person is focusing on, whether it’s a text conversation or their own internal thoughts. Theodore Zanto, a director of the neuroscience program at UCSF, also found that characteristics like age and gender affect the BCIs. Additionally, some research on psychological factors like fatigue, memory load can affect instantaneous brain activity. It’s estimated that about 15 to 30 percent of people can’t produce brain signals that are robust enough to operate BCIs. This could ultimately lead to unfair decisions from companies.
BCIs for Hazardous Jobs
Some experts are looking into how BCIs may be mandatory for more physically demanding or risky jobs in the future. For example, BCI companies are using EEGs to identify and analyze drowsy driving. If employees operate hazardous machinery, it may require monitoring employees in the same way. Surgeons and pilots will likely wear BCIs to ensure patient and passenger safety as they work.
Since BCI tech provides direct communication between the brain and external tech devices, most modes of working will change. In offices, we could control Powerpoint presentations and Excel files with our brains. Currently, some prototypes can translate brain activity into text. As BCI’s technology improves, we could see people use BCIs to write reports and notes at work.
Work environments could also adapt to employees’ stress levels or thoughts. By detecting the users’ mental state and adjusting external devices to their mood. If stressed, headbands could send information via Bluetooth, start a calming playlist or turn on “do not disturb” mode. However, the lack of privacy is problematic in that others can publicly know your mental state which could be used or modified against users without their approval.
Researchers have also experimented with using thoughts to unlock passwords. One expert mentioned how our brains produce distinctly unique neuronal electrical signals when people imagine shapes or sing songs. Even if another person imagined the same object or hummed the same song, their brain-wave patterns would still be different. An EEG could read these brain waves using noninvasive electrodes that record these patterns, which in turn can be used as a form of biometric identification to unlock personal accounts as a password.
While all this is intriguing, BCI technology faces many ethical questions. Corporations who implement such technologies could face serious backlash as the consequences of using the technology could be abusive and frightening. Even if companies used BCIs with good intentions, they could become too reliant on the innovation to evaluate or monitor employees. BCIs also encounter hackers who could access headbands and manipulate data.
If companies eventually end up using brain data, how they navigate privacy and data security will be areas worth discussing and scrutinizing. Established policies and regulations will also need to distinguish who owns the data that’s collected and employees’ rights. BCI technology is far ahead of these policies, but it is slowly moving into the consumer market. For now, a handful of startups and larger companies are working on making the technology safe and affordable. As business leaders implement this technology and try to use brain data to create better workplace safety and work efficiency, they may also want to consider creating a BCI strategy to address the potential risks and benefits of such a world-changing tool.