Innovation or Exploitation?

Article By : Luffy Liu, EETimes China

China abruptly banned the use of headbands to monitor school children in a classroom, after the Western media's coverage caused a backlash.

In a story entitled “China’s Efforts to Lead the Way in AI Start in Its Classrooms,” the Wall Street Journal last week sounded an alarm about China’s use of electronic headbands on little kids. Reportedly, headbands worn by school children monitor the intensity of each pupil’s concentration, while the relevant data collected by the headbands is sent to parents.

Thrown into the global spotlight by the Journal, China’s use of the futuristic wearable device on children triggered a backlash. Many Chinese also started asking on social media if school children’s privacy is protected and how the data is being used.

(Source: Wall Street Journal video)

On October 31, less than a week after the headband news surfaced, the education bureau in Jinhua City, Zhejiang Province abruptly announced that it had ordered its schools to unbuckle their headbands. The bureau insisted that “monitoring headband” data had not leaked, nor had it compromised student privacy.

So, I decided to take a look into the headband controversy, talk to someone at the education bureau and see how kids and parents are responding. In a mild surprise, we encountered no objections from the participating students’ parents. In contrast, protests on social media are abundant. The split got us thinking: The pupils’ “monitoring headband” has been banned. But is brain technology so terrible?

Our discovery
First, the use of the headbands was publicly announced last June. According to the official website of Xiaoshun Town Central Primary School, Xiaoshun Primary School was the first in Zhejiang Province to introduce high-end headband.

小学生“监控头环” 已被停用,脑机技术有这么可怕吗?

The site explained that headbands are intended to improve teaching and efficiency in the classroom, claiming that the practice “received widespread attention.” It also claims that the headband can detect the child’s concentration and produce an “attention score,” which goes to the teacher’s personal computers. The teacher can share the score with parents.

Presumably, the headband improves control over the classroom, helping the teacher understand and analyze class dynamics in real time, facilitating a more targeted teaching design, whatever that is.

Three months after it was introduced, the headband became an Internet phenomenon in China. Reportedly, some teachers and students are very satisfied with its effect. Some students are getting pressure from their parents to concentrate more.

I got in touch with the school. One student’s “headline” was glowing orange. This meant he was focused. There are students who say it hurts to wear a headband. In some cases, the headband left a mark.

There are obvious worries about a technology which monitors a child’s attention might be better at infringing on the kid’s privacy. Perhaps more important, it applies psychological pressure. Moreover, many parents do not care about the data collected, and nobody knows where it’s eventually transmitted.

Public opinion appears split. Many parents and teachers see it as a tool to improve performance. For some kids, it’s a nightmare.

Education Bureau responds
I also contacted the Jindong District Education Bureau of Jinhua City.

A staff member said that headband data collected is used only inside the school. “Background data is only designed for teacher’s analysis and improving their teaching methodologies.”

He added that the headband is not worn every day, but once a week. “Students are free to use the headband. Parents also recognize this, and this has not caused any adverse reactions among the students.”

He also claimed that student’s attention was actually improved by the headband.

However, despite these reported blessings, the education bureau reacted to a global backlash by ordering the school “to suspend use and asked all schools in the district to conduct self-examination.”

Who developed the headbands?
The backlash against headbands has prompted some backtracking on previous claims mad by those involved in the controvercy.

A spokesman for Zhejiang Qiang Brain Technology Co., Ltd., the company that makes the headbands, told reporters that the product is not a monitoring tool. It is meant to help students train and enhance their concentration. “The students are focused and do not need people to monitor.”

The company donated 50 headbands to Xiaoshun Town Central Primary School. The spokesman said, “Students do not need to wear them every day, but train once or twice a week for up to half an hour. Before using the headband, students should take special training courses, such as neurofeedback training, to improve their concentration by watching the speeding vehicles. After entering the classroom, the teacher can’t see the data of a single student, only can see the average attention, as a feedback of the acceptance of the content of the lecture.”

Kong Xiaoxian, an investor in the headband maker, is known as a donor of headbands to the school. But Kong isn’t alone. BrainCo.’s founder and CEO also donated headgear to the school. The Harvard University incubator-backed startup is known to have originally designed the Focus 1 headband. The underlying technology they designed is described as enabling “real-time brainwave feedback and visualization.”

Technology is not guilty”
Some scientists involved in electroencephalography (EEG) technology — an electrophysiological monitoring method — argue that the media should not demonize headband developers. Others, surprised by the backlash, reportedly complained, “The reports from foreign media are basically accurate, but some domestic media have not figured out our products at all, nor have they understood EEG technology, thus creating a panic.”

There have been warnings about the use of EEG headbands — not so much for the societal reasons, but purely a matter of scientific efficacy. Dr. Theodore Zanto, director of the Department of Neuroscience at the University of California, reportedly said that EEG, commonly used in patient diagnosis, is prone to inaccuracies. It can cause itching or irritability. When an EEG device is not properly set, the communication status of the electrodes is not good and will affect signal transmission.

Meanwhile, the Chinese protest against headbands is spreading. We gleaned from China’s social media — including weibo and qq — a sample of opinions.

@黑化肥灰灰: “The application of new technology must be reviewed by scientific ethics, otherwise the harm is completely uncontrollable. Today, the principal can [ask students to wear one]. Tomorrow, the education director can make a decision for the teacher and the principal. What is the day after tomorrow?”

@梦游的星星: “1. Why is a product that needs to be verified and improved to be used? Why is this thing worn on the head of a primary school student, not on the heads of the national conventions that are related to the people’s livelihood? Who gave the right to let these children be used as [lab rats]?

“2. Even if the technology is mature, should it be forced to use such a group? What everyone really worried about is whether it should be [used in every]  primary school in the country? Will it be a high school after primary school? …Will it be every resident after [students]?”

@: “In fact, this technology has been developed for several years. There are some medicines used to measure the presence of ADD (Adult ADHD), and such instruments are used as an aid. Generally speaking, the three electrodes are attached to the fixed part of the brain. In addition to being able to measure the data, the instrument can be used to control some games in the computer through thoughts.

“I have done several tests before, and it is quite fun to use it as a game to cultivate concentrated attention.

“But these things are preliminary studies. Even if they are mature, if they are used widely in the human body, and they are mandatory and do not agree, it is a terrible idea. This also proves that the phenomenon of authoritarian syndrome in contemporary Chinese is still quite strong and terrible.”

@李无道: “Those supporters, imagine if your company let you bring this stuff during work, you will call the police when you open the gap, you try. Empathy, there is no need to limit personal freedom in exchange for certain results. Fortunately, I graduated early…!”

@新浪科技: (US correspondent of tech-channel. The comment was extracted fro his original article posted on weibo: “Slightly understand some of the basic principles and application products of EEG technology, maybe it will not cause panic on a small head ring on the head of the child? After all, improving concentration is just a very shallow application scenario for EEG technology. The most subversive innovation in the future of this cutting-edge technology is mind input and mind control.”

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