CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.
L’Oreal is the global leader in fragrance. It’s always looking to push the envelope. And so last year, it took the age-old pursuit of finding the perfect perfume, and went straight to the brain for answers. With the help of EMOTIV, a neurotechnology company in San Francisco, L’Oreal is now offering in-store consultations to help customers find their “perfect scent suited to their emotions.”
Here’s how it works: You wear a headset with multiple EEG sensors. It monitors your brain activity as you smell different scents. And with the help of machine learning algorithms, L’Oreal tells you what your brain is saying – even if you can’t articulate that preference with words. Now this neurotechnology product seems pretty cool, right? But there are questions: How else will that data be used? Could it help come up with new perfumes to market to the rest of us? Is that okay?
Today’s guest says that advances in neurotechnology are bringing these kinds of dilemmas to the frontlines of companies. And the people encountering this tech – and dealing with these questions first – are organizational leaders and managers. Nita Farahany is a professor at the Duke University School of Law who has long looked at the intersection of technology and privacy. And she wrote the new book The Battle for Your Brain: Defending the Right to Think Freely in the Age of Neurotechnology. Nita, so great to have you.
NITA FARAHANY: I’m delighted to be here.
CURT NICKISCH: What do you mean by neurotechnology? I feel like that’s a word that seems familiar. You might actually think what it means and then you stop and think that it’s actually vague.
NITA FARAHANY: That’s right. I think most people today think of neurotechnology as big, cumbersome devices or something like Neuralink and implanted electrodes inside of their brains…
CURT NICKISCH: And Neuralink is like Elon Musk’s company.
NITA FARAHANY: Yeah, exactly. Elon Musk company, which is…
CURT NICKISCH: Very future-forward. Yeah.
NITA FARAHANY: Very future-forward. And there are other companies that are more advanced today with that kind of implanted neurotechnology. But what I’m talking about is any sensor that can pick up your brain activity and that sensor could be on your scalp; it could be inside your brain. It could even be worn in a watch on your wrist, picking up your peripheral nervous activity that is as neurons go from your brain down to your wrist to tell it how to move. So it’s anything that picks up, decodes or can stimulate and change what’s happening inside of your brain and your mental experiences.
CURT NICKISCH: Are they very good? Are we that close? I’ve always pictured people going into labs, plugging these cumbersome things on. Is it that close to actually useful products? Are they really effective, I guess, are we that close?
NITA FARAHANY: So let me first say, it’s not just that we’re that close. It’s here. There are already devices and brain sensors in use worldwide, but the question of is it that good? The answer is for what purpose? Is it very good at being able to decode everything that’s happening in your brain? Definitely not.
Even the most sophisticated neurotechnology if you go into a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, these are like an MRI, a giant machine that you go into that peers into the brain and looks at changes and blood flow in the brain. Even that, which is quite sophisticated, can pick up a lot of what’s happening in the brain. But I think when we ask the question of is it good? Yes, for some applications, no for other applications.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. So, what are some of those really incredibly useful narrow use cases? What kinds of commercial products are out there?
NITA FARAHANY: So for consumers, I divide the world into thinking about neurotechnology for everyone, versus neurotechnology as implanted devices and implanted devices are getting increasingly more sophisticated to help people who have lost, for example, the ability to speak, to communicate, or are suffering from paralysis, have some ability to interact with other technology or even move a wheelchair or turn lights on and off.
But if we focus on the category of wearable brain sensors, the kind of thing that is going widespread and that major technology companies have made just huge bets on as being the next big thing, right now, the ones that are already in use that are useful are things like fatigue detection and management.
A lot of people are used to having, for example, in their cars, some kind of fatigue detection system. It picks up things like are you moving the steering wheel in ways that would suggest that you’re tired or it has cameras that look at the stripes on the road and try to figure out if you’re starting to become erratic.
CURT NICKISCH: Got it. These are sort of long-haul truck drivers?
NITA FARAHANY: Yeah. But even everyday vehicles, I think the first car that I was familiar with that had this, I think Mercedes-Benz had this driver assist technology where if it sensed that you were tired, it would pop up a little coffee cup on your dashboard saying like, “Time to take a break.” Those are good. They’re lifesaving and the technology and the algorithms detecting patterns that suggest a person is tired have gotten increasingly better, better still, rather than trying to make inferences about whether or not your brain is tired, is a sensor that could actually pick up your brain activity and tell you whether or not your brain is tired.
And the reason that may be better still is because it’s both more direct and accurate, but also it can pick up the stages of sleep earlier than when you’re driving erratically. And while I have significant privacy concerns about the coming age of wearable brain sensors, the way that that company is implementing it, which is to literally extract just that piece of information, there’s not much intrusion into a person’s mental privacy that occurs, nor do they have necessarily the right to claim significant mental privacy interests relative to the societal interest if they’re a commercial long haul trucker and falling asleep at the wheel.
Other applications that have been in widespread use for a while are for meditation and neurofeedback. So you can pick up with these brain sensors, rising levels of stress, for example, or brainwave activity that is correlated with a meditative state. And you can use that in conjunction with an application, for example, on your phone that gives you real-time feedback about whether or not you are in that meditative state or if your stress levels are high, or whether or not you’ve been able to bring it down. And you can use that as training to try to actually train your brain to spend longer periods of time in a meditative state or emotional regulation.
Those same metrics correlate with things like attention and focus. And so a lot of neurotech companies have marketed for a while, focus applications that go along with brain sensors and some of the major companies that are launching this spring, that’s where they have really invested is in the algorithms that detect attention and mind wandering.
CURT NICKISCH: Are there any fun applications, anything really creative and maybe not so flag-raising?
NITA FARAHANY: Well, I’ll tell you one of the first ways that I played with it, I mean, and this was probably a decade ago. I just thought it was so cool to be able to put on a little headset that had a brain censor and it was just a headband. And then there was a little helicopter that you could try to fly using your brain to have it go up and down and move it around. And that was just like a fun, novelty application.
Neurogaming is a huge community using the power of thought as basically the joystick and to navigate around in games. There’s also a segment of that community that does not just use their brain as the controller for operating in the gaming environment, but also for increasing the clock speed of how they do it. So there are devices that write to the brain rather than just read the brain. And these are things like transcranial direct current stimulation.
Those give a little jolt of basically electricity to the brain. And gamers have for quite a while been used in these to try to increase their rate of being able to respond or target identification in games. And of course, that’s been used in the military and in other training settings. It’s been used in sports settings. There was a company called Halo that was using it to train with NFL and for Olympic athletes to try to improve their performance while training. Or if you’re doing a golf swing and you’re doing it over and over again and you’re doing it correctly, giving you a jolt of electricity while learning to create those pathways that become more automatic.
There’s a lot of applications like this that have been around for a while. What’s changed is most of those were standalone devices, meaning you had to wear something different on your head, you had to have some additional device that you were wearing. And the big move that’s happened with a lot of major tech companies is a recognition that in the same way that sensors have been integrated into our watches and Fitbit and rings, we should just have multifunctional devices that also have brain sensors in them. So our headphones and our earbuds and our watches can have those same sensors embedded in them.
And when you do that and you add the increased abilities, like the seismic advances we’ve had in artificial intelligence that can decode what is a huge amount of activity and differences really between brains that AI can suddenly make possible to decode and get much better information and signals and filter out the noise and things like that, you see suddenly many, many more applications and a much more wider scale, widespread possibility for the use of this technology in society.
CURT NICKISCH: How big of a market is it? You’ve just mentioned huge bets and big investments from a lot of places.
NITA FARAHANY: So globally, the market for neurotechnology is growing at a compounded annual rate of 12% and it’s expected to reach 21 billion by 2026. So we’re not talking about a small few niche products here. And I expect that it will grow exponentially from there because if you think about it like the one untapped area of the body that hasn’t been quantified, that hasn’t been commodified, that hasn’t been decoded for health and for wellness, is the brain. And if suddenly that becomes a target, which it is, but an accessible target by companies, it is like the last untapped market of the human body.
CURT NICKISCH: How do you see neurotechnology affecting the workplace like workers and managers right now and in the near term?
NITA FARAHANY: Yeah, so I mean there’s a lot of ways in which neuroscience has already become part of the workplace, whether it’s hiring or promotion or management or stress management or even surveillance. Algorithmic hiring has become the norm for a lot of companies. A lot of large companies is the first screening of resumes and individuals, and many of those are now integrating cognitive and personality-based assessment tests, which are based on neuroscience as well, to try to figure out what the cognitive and effective skills of the worker are and if that’s a good fit with the workplace.
CURT NICKISCH: Are those better than human judgment? Whether somebody makes eye contact or not? Videos can pick that up, but…
NITA FARAHANY: So, I think we have all kinds of problems with hiring through human judgment, all kinds of biases, and guesses. At the same time, I’m not sure that reducing people to puzzle parts with cognitive and personality testing, I don’t know if we’ve gotten that right yet either because we’re doing these batteries of tests, but there isn’t the long-term data really to show that that’s what makes the best fit in the workplace or that we’re even measuring exactly the right skills.
CURT NICKISCH: Nobody’s making anybody wear a cap when they apply for a job.
NITA FARAHANY: Well, I mean there are actually companies that have touted the integration of the use of EEG as part of that testing. And interestingly, there was a study that was done on surgeons, it was while surgeons were performing the same task that they would for a performance assessment for credentialing, they monitored their brain activity and have cutting techniques and things like that. And what they found was that the brainwave activity was a better predictor of who was a novice and who was a more skilled surgeon.
And it was because you could see that there was greater motor activity in the skilled surgeons and there was more cognitive thinking about what they were doing in the novices. So if you think about habit versus when you’re learning a new skill, you spend a lot of time thinking about that new skill and less time just applying it. Once it becomes more routine and automatic, it becomes a learned skill that you can do more quickly and more efficiently and is going to focus more on motor activity.
So maybe, right, it’s not happening yet, but I could imagine that we might integrate that kind of testing in the future if we were trying to figure out the skill level of people or other kinds of applications. But I mean, if you want to know who’s the most skilled pilot, do you want somebody who is thinking about all of the controls and trying to figure out where they are or who’s just really skilled and able to execute on it?
So there’s a lot of interesting ways to think about how that could be integrated into skills assessment or testing. There are other ways it’s being used already. It’s being increasingly sold into enterprises for attention monitoring and management as an enterprise solution. And right now, if you look at some of the surveys that were done during the pandemic or the height of the pandemic, we see that many of the companies surveyed, more than 80% of them said that they either already use some surveillance systems on their employees for productivity scoring, whether that’s keystroke logging or Office 365 that looks at the amount of time spent on different applications that a person has in their work environment or even turning on webcams to track what a person is doing when they’re at home, whether or not they’re in front of their computer and engaged in tasks that are related to work.
CURT NICKISCH: Lots of controversy around that already, which we’ve talked about that on the show. Yeah.
NITA FARAHANY: A huge amount. Yeah, I mean just huge amounts of controversy and big questions as to whether or not that actually improves productivity in the workplace as it erodes trust. When you take that to the next level and what you say is, “Okay, well we are already tracking all of that, but now we want to actually put sensors in your ears and in your headphones that track your attention and how much time you’re paying attention or your mind is wandering during the workday.” That can have really detrimental effects and be incredibly problematic. Now I want to differentiate, I think attention and focus management tools given to individuals to use can be helpful, I use them myself.
CURT NICKISCH: A lot of people do this themselves with apps or extensions on their browsers.
NITA FARAHANY: Totally.
CURT NICKISCH: Just to build in sort of deep work and focus time. Yeah.
NITA FARAHANY: Yeah. I have a little-
CURT NICKISCH: But they do it optionally.
NITA FARAHANY: They do it optionally. I have a low-tech cube that just has different time intervals on it, and I’ll say like, “Okay, I’m spending 20 minutes uninterrupted, no email, no messaging. I need to write for 20 minutes.” Or whatever interval I want to pick, and then I’ll use that to self-regulate. Neurotech tools can do that too. It can help people see when they have the greatest periods of focus and attention. And some of the nice things about it are they can help a person, for example, suppose you’re wearing brain sensors all day during your workday, and you think the periods of time that you are the most focused are before lunch or between three and 5:00 PM.
And over time you start to see the data that’s able to quantify when you’re paying attention and when your mind is wandering or which environments, whether working from home or in your office, outside, inside, whatever it is, creates a greater distraction for you. It can be a great way to develop insights about your work behaviors and your ability to concentrate in different settings. That same technology, if it’s used by employers, can also give them insights. And I’ve heard from some companies that they’re using that to make insights, for example, about across their employees if many of them are wearing it and they are trying to make decisions at a managerial level about whether work-from-home policies or work-in-the-office policies make sense, seeing attention lagging or attention that is higher or engagement or boredom or stress levels that vary based on different workplace environments, they’ve said is helpful to them in making decisions about what their office policy should be.
CURT NICKISCH: So using it across a broad number of people, but not looking at any one person specifically, rather trying to come up with a global policy or-
NITA FARAHANY: Yes. Coming up with a global policy, yeah. Now, that still makes me uncomfortable to be honest, because you’re still, even at that aggregate level, you’re still getting a lot of insight that feels intrusive to me, but I start to see how that could be a better use of it. I haven’t really figured out where I come out on that aggregate-level decision-making. But there’s another category which closely relates to that which is interesting, instead of surveilling employees and using that to try to figure out if they’re paying attention or their mind is wandering, and I’ll just note by the way that I don’t think that’s the right metric either because while it’s helpful for people to pay attention, periods of mind wandering shouldn’t be something that we discourage, we should actually create space for that because great insights and advances largely come from those periods of downtime and mind wandering.
And there’s a difference between, I think, mind wandering and being distracted all the time. And so we’ve got to be careful what we’re measuring and create space for mind wandering. It’s okay to recognize that distraction is problematic, but I think putting those in the hands of individuals is probably the best solution to have it actually both help employees but also employers in the long run. The third category that I think is really interesting is cognitive ergonomics. And this is instead of based on large surveillance of employees, most of the studies to date that have done this, or most of the workplaces that have relied on information about this have asked employees to volunteer for some time-limited period to wear something like a brain censor while they operate in different environments.
So one interesting example of this is the Microsoft Human Factors team decided during the pandemic, to have people wear brain censors while on Zoom meetings back to back and then where brain sensors while in-person meetings and look at what the difference between stress levels was in those different environments. And they found that actually, Zoom-based environments stressed our brains out more than in-person environments. People were doing back-to-back meetings all day long without breaks in between them. And so they used these insights to make changes, and those changes were to, first of all, put five-minute breaks between meetings. They actually changed the way that they calendared and scheduled meetings to create five-minute gaps and to allow scheduling meetings at 10:35 in the morning instead of 10:30 in the morning.
And then offering guided meditation and feedback during those five-minute breaks, which helped the brain reset. That kind of thing, which is to use insights to design a healthier workplace I think those are really interesting applications of neurotech to try to gain insights about what’s a better and healthier work environment for people.
What a lot of companies have started to do is to integrate into their workplace wellness programs or to start workplace wellness programs that focus also on mental health and stress levels. I think that’s a really positive thing, but I have concerns about the information that’s being collected in those programs. What I really worry about is whether companies are using the data that’s being collected by neurotechnology, by mental health wellness programs, are they using it in responsible, transparent, and trustworthy ways that empower employees or they use it in ways that can really erode trust and ultimately increase stress levels?
CURT NICKISCH: Like in a lot of technologies, it’s often companies that are debuting and rolling it out first and regulation from governments tend to lag. Is it the same here that it’s up to managers and leaders at companies to set policies and regulate themselves?
NITA FARAHANY: It really is, since they’re at the forefront of this. There are a few states in the United States that have biometric laws, for example, that apply to the workplace, but that’s the exception rather than the norm. Most of the workplaces are really in the hands of managers and corporations and executives to make decisions about how they’re going to integrate technology and they’re trying to push the envelope, be cutting edge, introduce the latest innovations into the workplace and into the corporate environment. And that’s almost always going to be behind where government regulation and oversight is. And I don’t want to stifle that innovation, but I do think as leaders who are innovating and pushing the envelope and trying to integrate the latest technology into the workplace, that means they have an added duty and burden to do it right, to get it right.
This is truly a completely new and novel category of targeting and focusing and getting access to, and even the ability to change the human brain. And given that, I think it’s so critical that managers and executives, and corporate leaders implement this in a trustworthy way, and I would say act as if we have mental privacy, even if it hasn’t been recognized yet as an explicit right. That means collecting the least amount of data necessary from employees in order to keep this as a narrowly-tailored tool of empowerment to improve workplaces rather than create truly the most insidious, oppressive Orwellian environments that we could imagine.
CURT NICKISCH: What are the sorts of things that leaders and managers should be doing as they roll this out?
NITA FARAHANY: I’m advocating that we start with something that I call the right to cognitive liberty. That’s the right to self-determination of our brains and mental experiences. I’m hoping that we start with that rights-based approach at an international human rights level. Let’s assume that my hope is realized, but later, and what should corporations and employers and managers be doing now and what they should be doing now is one, operating as if we have that right to cognitive liberty, which includes the right to mental privacy.
That would mean that if you’re seeking to get data about a person’s brain and their brain activity, it would be based on a limited, bona fide reason for the workplace. For example, if you have a commercial driver, you need to know whether or not they are wide awake or they are asleep and you say, “The justification is for safety, both for the employee and for society as they are driving these commercial vehicles. We’re going to be tracking fatigue levels, and even though we could get access to a whole bunch more brain data by monitoring the brain through these brain censors, we’re only going to get that information. We’re going to overwrite the rest of the data.”
And SmartCap’s policy, that’s the company that has this fatigue management tool that is the most widespread, their policy is to overwrite data on device and to limit the amount of information to this narrowly-tailored purpose. I think that’s a good example and a good approach to the practice. The second is to be incredibly transparent by putting in written policies for employees exactly what the purpose of the technology is, what data it is collecting, what its capabilities are, and how that information will be used by employers. They should also favor that the data that is being collected, especially by neurotech devices, be kept on the device for employees, to the extent that there’s value in having aggregate level data that helps to inform workplace policies. That’s something that employers could give employees the opportunity to opt-in on and to help them understand that it would be something to try to improve workplace environments and policies, and it wouldn’t be used for any discriminatory decision-making about employees.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. Or trying to tell who’s going to quit within six months.
NITA FARAHANY: Right. That would be a bad use of it. And so I think doing it this way, which is with a focus on empowering and improving the workplace for employees, giving employees autonomy and recognizing that this is uniquely sensitive data and uniquely sensitive information and has a potential chilling effect if it’s mandated in the workplace, even if you can’t pick up anything else from the brain, the very fact that people are asked to wear brain censors or required to wear brain censors can have a chilling effect because they just don’t know. They don’t know what else you could pick up from them. And so I think it’s the greater transparency, the more open dialogue that there is, the more concrete written, policies and narrowly-tailored policies around data collection management and use in this context, the better.
CURT NICKISCH: It does make me think that a lot of what companies do does already rewire brains, right? It’s like when we show up at work when we go through a company orientation, there is a lot of conforming and changing of how you think.
NITA FARAHANY: I know. Where you draw the line on this stuff is not easy.
CURT NICKISCH: Nita, you’ve given us a lot to think about. Thanks for coming on the show.
NITA FARAHANY: Of course. My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
CURT NICKISCH: That’s Nita Farahany, Professor at the Duke University School of Law, an author of the new book The Battle for Your Brain: Defending the Right to Think Freely in the Age of Neurotechnology. And we have more episodes and more podcasts to help you manage your team, manage organizations, and manage your career. Find them at hbr.org/podcasts or search HBR in Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox and Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Curt Nickisch.