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MIND HACKING

A “brain-reading” headband for students is too much even for Chinese parents

By Jane Li

A headband that claims to monitor children’s brainwaves in order to improve their focus is available for purchase in China, aimed at “Tiger” mothers and fathers who’ll do everything to help their children succeed. But many of its target customers are already creeped out.

The Focus1, or Fu Si, headband, from US-based startup BrainCo, claims it can measure how closely students are paying attention through electrodes that detect electrical activity in kids’ brains and send the data to teachers’ computers or to a mobile app. A light on the headband that gleams red, yellow or blue, also purports to signal how engaged a child is with the task at hand—with red being the highest level of attention. The product already provoked unease in April, when photos and footage of primary school students in one Chinese province wearing the product started to circulate widely online. Now the product is retailing for about 3,200 to 14,000 yuan (about $450-$2000) on the country’s biggest e-commerce sites.

“My children are humans, not animals, they don’t need to be ‘cultivated’ like this,” wrote Weibo user Danlan Xiaoxiong, reacting to a report today about the device’s pricing and availability.

“Who gave the two schools the right to use students as white rabbits to test the headbands? I also have some products that I’d like to test on the kids, will the schools agree?” asked another user, sdjnmxh.

The headband's advertisement on JD.com. It says the different colors of the light, placed on the forehead of the product, indicate different levels of concentration, with red showing the highest level while blue the least.
BrarinCo's JD.com page/Screenshot
The headband’s advertisement on its storefront on e-commerce retailer JD.com. The colors of the light on the band indicate different levels of concentration, with red showing the highest level.

The backlash over the product gained steam last month after Chinese media outlets cited a Wall Street Journal report (paywall) about the experience of children using the headwear in one pilot school that displayed students’ attention levels to the entire class—simulated as rockets flying on a screen. It reached such a level that the school featured in the story, Jinhua Xiaoshun Primary School in eastern China, was ordered to suspend the device’s use (link in Chinese) by local authorities on Oct. 31, according to the Beijing News. The Zhejiang-based school received 50 such headbands donated by BrainCo last year, said the report.

A hashtag relating to the suspension has been trending on Weibo since last week, with the topic racking up more than 77 million views as of Monday. 

Marketing material for the headband shows how this item can be connected to a mobile app that tells parents their child's concentration level.
BrainCo's JD.com/Screenshot
Marketing materials for the headband tells parents they can track their child’s concentration level via a mobile app.

BrainCo could not be immediately reached for comment.

China has been quick to adopt technologies that use biometric data for social control. Facial-recognition software, for example, is used to catch jaywalkers and lawbreakers, to monitor toilet paper use in public toilets, and for identity verification to get a mobile number. The classroom, in particular, has become a new front in Beijing’s sweeping efforts to monitor its citizens, with facial-recognition being used to assess attendance and attentiveness, while kindergarteners interact with AI robots. But there are signs of stirrings of unease now these uses are so pervasive—all without anything in the way of regulation covering the collection and use of the data.

A professor in the city of Hangzhou has sued a safari park that forced visitors to scan their faces to enter the venue, saying it infringed on his consumer rights by collecting such information—a court agreed to hear the case last week. Residents of an apartment complex in Shanghai have also complained to Chinese media about the secretive installation of facial recognition devices in elevators, in a program backed by police. And pictures of the headband-wearing kids have drawn especially outraged reactions.

“What did these children do wrong to deserve this life of constant monitoring?” asked one Weibo user who was quoted by South China Morning Post in April. “It boggles my mind that we cannot put ankle bracelets on pedophiles but it is astonishingly easy to put headbands on these powerless kids.”

Some scientists have expressed concern over whether brain signal data can be accurately used in this manner—or if it should be. Chinese engineer Han Bicheng, who founded BrainCo in Massachusetts in 2015 and invented the head wear, has defended the product as a tool for helping students to improve test scores by gauging when they’re more or less engaged to find ways to help them focus better—rather than a form of surveillance.

“The headband is similar to devices used for detecting brain waves of patients in hospitals for medical assessments. The product does not monitor all the brain activity of students, but only reads some brain signals to quantify the concentration level of the kids using computer algorithms. The data extracted from the students will only be stored in the computers of the schools but not transferred back to our company,” Han told Chinese news site  (link in Chinese) the Paper.cn recently.

BrainCo’s wearable isn’t the only device that seeks to use neuroscience to hack performance, in what looks set to be a growing field. Some devices go further—aiming to stimulate the brain while its user is practicing something to aid learning. These devices don’t qualify as medical devices, however, and aren’t regulated as such.

Han, who’s a doctoral candidate at Harvard University’s Center for Brain Science, said the headband is at the pilot stage, and has been used only at two Chinese schools, which obtained consent from parents for doing so.

“We are going to focus on the use of the headbands at home going forward,” said Han.