China introduces artificial intelligence thought police to improve worker efficiency, military loyalty

By Jamie Seidel

Posted on On May 2, 2018

FOR factory workers in China, there’s no such thing as privacy, as employers have begun forcing staff members to wear devices that monitor their mental states.

FACTORY workers. Military personnel. Train drivers. If you’re employed in China, your thoughts are not your own.

Headwear with built in sensors is being distributed through China’s state-owned companies to monitor the brain waves of their workers.

The South China Morning Post says hats and helmets with the equipment are being used to alert managers to sudden changes in the emotional states of their employees.

Details on the “emotional surveillance” device are thin.

All we know is the state of your mind as determined by the sensors in your hat is being transmitted to a central artificial intelligence algorithm intended to identify thoughts of anger, anxiety and sadness.


The Post says the technology was introduced to a dozen military and business sites in 2014. It cites one state-owned company, State Grid Zhejiang Electric Power, reporting a $US315 million leap in profits once the sensors were fitted to its 40,000 staff.

“They thought we could read their mind. This caused some discomfort and resistance in the beginning,” Jin Jia, a professor of brain science at Ningbo University told the Post.

“After a while they got used to the device … They wore it all day at work.”

A similar set of sensors is being used in the caps of train drivers on a high-speed line between Beijing and Shanghai. It’s intended to monitor concentrations levels — and if the drivers fall asleep.

In both cases, the results were reportedly used to tailor the frequency and lengths of rest breaks — or even sending workers home — to maximise overall efficiency.


Such surveillance technology fits a growing push in China to assign every individual citizen a secret ‘loyalty score’.

If they say the wrong things on social media. If they fail to attend official functions. If their performance slips … they get points deducted. If they’re seen to promote the Party line and be productive, they get bonus points.

It’s a system already having a real life-impact in China.

One way you can discover you’re out of favour with the ruling party is to have your purchase of train or airline tickets declined.

And police are already trialling portable face-recognition software that combines with their sunglasses to detect ‘persons of interest’ in crowds.


Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) doubt the ‘thought caps’ are more than an intimidation tactic.

Do they actually work?

“Yeah, probably not,” the MIT Technology Review says. “Over-the-skin brain scanning through EEG is still very limited in what it can detect, and the relationship between those signals and human emotion is not yet clear. Being able to gather enough information to somehow get a two billion yuan ($US315 million) boost in profits — which is what one firm, State Grid Zhejiang Electric Power, claims in the piece — is incredibly doubtful.”

The MIT Review states claims about the technology’s efficacy are almost certainly being embellished.

“If it’s just an attempt to talk up a technological ‘breakthrough,’ that’s one thing. But (is it) being used to reassign workers — or potentially even terminate them — because of their perceived emotions? In that case, China is indeed leading the way in workplace surveillance in a way that stands to benefit no one.”