And Finally

A new headmaster

A school in Zhejiang tests ‘brainwave’ monitors


Pay attention, please

Focus 1 is a wireless headband that claims to offer “real-time brain wave visualisation”.

According to its website, the brand employs an “optimised, NASA-inspired” algorithm.

Whether it is actually capable of monitoring concentration is one question. Whether it should be used in school classrooms is another.

Focus 1 made headlines last month when the Wall Street Journal reported that the headband was being worn at a primary school in Zhejiang province to spot kids who weren’t focusing on their studies.

The makers of the headband – BrainCO – say that the device analyses brain waves and notifies teachers if a child is tuning out. That allows the educator to step in and make sure the child has understood what is being taught.

Some parents at the primary school seemed to think the headbands were a good idea. They even got a daily readout on their child’s concentration span, delivered by WeChat. But others had serious reservations, as have parents at other schools that have experimented with artificial intelligence-based monitoring systems.

“When technology labels a lively child as ‘distracted’, can he claim otherwise? Rather than using technology to restrict kids, why not make the classes more interesting so they are more likely to hold a child’s attention,” the People’s Daily asked on its official Weibo account.

BrainCO is a US-based firm set up by Han Bicheng, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Centre for Brain Science. Han, a Chinese citizen, donated the headsets to the school, which used them for a year before the local education department revoked its permission, following a public outcry.

The headband has a light which glows red if students are concentrating, and blue if they are not paying attention.

Some of the students in the Wall Street Journal video report said they felt like the “machine was controlling them” and that it was uncomfortable to wear. Others complained that their parents had punished them for poor concentration.

The machine measures brainwaves at 10-minute intervals and the results were made public to all parents who had kids in the class.

China’s central government has set ambitious goals for the development of AI, including becoming the world’s “premier artificial intelligence innovation centre” by 2030.

But in the rush to take pole position, less time is being spent on the moral and ethical questions posed by the advent of new technology.

Surveillance specialist Hikvision – a company on a blacklist in Washington that prevents sales to US government customers – was also contracted to create a “behaviour management system” at a school in Hangzhou. It used facial recognition software to scan the children and detect their moods.

One of the questions with these new programmes is what happens to the information they gather. Does it go back to the companies so they can refine their approach? What are the responsibilities of the schools in keeping the data secure? Is it all being released to parents?

In the case of the Focus 1 headband, it’s not even clear that the technology works in the way that its inventors claim. Electroencephalography, or EEG, is a tricky science which reads electrical impulses in the brain. Typically, multiple electrodes are attached to the subject’s head and the person is asked to stay as still as possible as small muscle movements can distort the accuracy of the readings.

EEG experts say that headbands like the Focus 1, which have a smaller number of sensors, could give misleading readings, especially as many children find it hard to sit still. Nor do they allow for the fact that drifting off is part of the learning process – and a trait that kids can overcome with practice.

Despite the concerns, it seems that the children at the primary school in Zhejiang got better grades than their peers, leading to claims that it was because they were wearing the headbands. But educational experts cited in said that could be down to the fact that the children simply felt more scrutinised.“This may have a negative impact on the development of their personalities and it will give students greater mental pressure,” warned Xiong Bingqi, vice president of the 21st Century Education Research Institute.

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