How Managers Could Track Our Brains

A headset that measures how fit employees are: Neurotechnologies are already in use. The aim is to minimize accidents caused by human error. Everything all right?

On April 25, 1986, a power failure was to be simulated at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant as part of a safety test. Actually a routine procedure. Everything initially went according to plan; power reduction had begun in the early hours of the morning. But during the experiment, the demand for electricity from Kiev suddenly increased, so the controlled shutdown of the reactor had to be postponed until the after-hours.

After a shift change shortly before midnight, the disaster took its course: at 0:28 a.m., the power dropped to one percent – due to an operator error or technical defect, which has not been clarified to date. Instead of shutting down the reactor immediately, the inexperienced operators tried to start it up again. The outcome is well known: A chain reaction and a meltdown occurred. At 1:23 a.m., the reactor exploded. Chernobyl became a death zone. 28 people died in the explosion and thousands from the consequences of radioactive radiation.

Could the reactor disaster have been prevented? Who was to blame? Man? The technology? There is a lot of research literature about the Chernobyl accident. One of the most interesting, though little discussed, theses is the crew’s lack of sleep.

It is striking that the disaster happened at night. The accident of the tanker “Exxon Valdez,” which ran aground off Alaska on March 24, 1989, and lost 38,000 tons of crude oil, is also said to have been caused by a lack of wakefulness. The crew had hardly slept beforehand.

Was it lack of sleep?

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it is difficult to establish a causal link between lack of sleep and the reactor accident. But numerous studies have shown that well-rested employees make fewer mistakes and react more calmly in stressful situations. So getting enough sleep not only helps prevent accidents but also saves a lot of money. With the help of modern technology, employers are therefore trying to get tired employees out of circulation early.

The company Smart Cap, for example, has developed a special helmet that uses an EEG (electroencephalography) sensor to measure the wearer’s brain waves. The data is analyzed by an algorithm and rated on a scale of one (hyperalert) to five (involuntary sleep). The foreman or supervisor can then see on an app in real-time how to fit his employees at any given moment. If the employee becomes tired, the algorithm detects this by the change in brain waves and immediately sends an alert. Smart Cap’s customers include companies in the construction, mining, and aviation industries. In mining, in particular, accidents occur time and again because workers nod off. When a dump truck weighing hundreds of tons tips over, it endangers people’s lives.

Microsleep also poses a considerable risk in road traffic. In Germany alone, 1507 accidents involving injuries or fatalities due to drowsy driving were recorded in 2021, according to the ADAC. It is true that modern vehicles are equipped with an attention assistant that detects signs of drowsiness based on driving behavior (such as conspicuous steering wheel movements) and advises drivers to take a break. But many drivers still overestimate their abilities.

Monitor everyone and everything?

Some time ago, Amazon installed AI-supported cameras in its delivery trucks to monitor the alertness of its drivers, which was controversial in terms of labor and data protection law because the online retailer threatened to terminate the contract if the drivers did not agree to the processing of biometric data. Companies such as Smart Eye now offer sophisticated monitoring systems for logistics and aviation that use sensors and cameras to track the eye, face, and body movements of pilots and drivers.

Fatigue also poses dangers and health risks in traditional office jobs, although the effects tend to be long rather than short-term. Fatigue syndromes caused by tiring video conferences – keyword zoom fatigue – should be familiar to everyone by now. Microsoft has already researched the fatigue of video conference participants with the help of EEG waves. The result: test subjects who did not take a break between sessions showed spikes in brainwaves indicating stress and lower engagement.

Research on the topic is also underway in Europe. For example, as part of the EU-funded Mindtooth project, scientists have developed an EEG headset that uses sensors to measure the wearer’s brain activity. AI-based software calculates neurometric parameters such as workload, alertness, and stress levels. The easy-to-wear, battery-powered headset, which is less clunky than VR goggles, is intended for use in flight and driving simulators and, in perspective, in real-world construction and industrial work to prevent stressful situations. Would an EEG headset have prevented the Chernobyl disaster? (Adrian Lobe, 3/22/2023)


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