January 28, 2004
Sandia Researchers Monitoring EEGs To Improve Meeting Productivity

Researchers in the Sandia National Laboratories Advanced Concepts Group are using computers hooked up to a variety of medical monitoring devices to measure brain and body changes of people in meetings and feeing back this information to meeting members in order to cause them to change the way they are responding.

Aided by tiny sensors and transmitters called a PAL (Personal Assistance Link) your machine (with your permission) will become an anthroscope - an investigator of your up-to-the-moment vital signs, says Sandia project manager Peter Merkle. It will monitor your perspiration and heartbeat, read your facial expressions and head motions, analyze your voice tones, and correlate these to keep you informed with a running account of how you are feeling - something you may be ignoring - instead of waiting passively for your factual questions. It also will transmit this information to others in your group so that everyone can work together more effectively.

"We're observing humans by using a lot of bandwidth across a broad spectrum of human activity," says Merkle, who uses a Tom Clancy-based computer game played jointly by four to six participants to develop a baseline understanding of human response under stress.

"If someone's really excited during the game and that's correlated with poor performance, the machine might tell him to slow down via a pop-up message," says Merkle. "On the other hand, it might tell the team leader, 'Take Bill out of loop, we don't want him monitoring the space shuttle today. He's had too much coffee and too little sleep. Sally, though, is giving off the right signals to do a great job.'"

The idea of the devices has occasioned some merry feedback, as from a corporate executive who emailed, "Where do we get the version that tells people they are boring in meetings? Please hurry and send that system to us. A truck full or two should cover us."

More seriously, preliminary results on five people interacting in 12 sessions beginning Aug. 18 indicate that personal sensor readings caused lower arousal states, improved teamwork and better leadership in longer collaborations. A lowered arousal state - the amount of energy put into being aware - is preferable in dealing competently with continuing threat.


"Some people think you have to start with a theory. Darwin didn't go with a theory. He went where his subjects were and started taking notes. Same here," he says. Merkle presented a paper on his group's work at the NASA Human Performance conference Oct. 28-29 in Houston. "Before we knew that deep-ocean hydrothermal vents existed, we had complex theories about what governed the chemistry of the oceans. They were wrong." Now it's state-of-the-art to use EEG systems to link up brain events to social interactions, he says. "Let's get the data and find out what's real."

The tools for such a project - accelerometers to measure motion, face-recognition software, EMGs to measure muscle activity, EKGs to measure heart beat, blood volume pulse oximetry to measure oxygen saturation, a Pneumotrace(tm) respiration monitor to measure breathing depth and rapidity - are all off-the-shelf items.


Further work is anticipated in joint projects between Sandia and the University of New Mexico, and also with Caltech.

"In 2004 we intend to integrate simultaneous four-person 128-channel EEG recording," says Merkle, "correlating brain events, physiologic dynamics, and social phenomena to develop assistive methods to improve group and individual performance."

How many potential abuses of this technology can you imagine? One of the worse I can think of would be bosses using it to ensure that everyone is paying attention in a seminar introducing the latest management fad.

On the more optimistic side, if the device could measure confusion then it would help to alert someone that his explanation about some problem or proposal is not getting across. Also each person could use it to detect their own anger and frustration and work to try to reduce the stress that one feels in some situations. This would have the beneficial effect of slowing down the rate of aging. The ability to do biofeedback training while in silly meetings would also have the benefit of making those meetings more productive - at least for one's own personal quest to develop thought patterns that allow one to remain unstressed by the folly which is found in so many corporate settings.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 January 28 10:30 AM  Cyborg Tech

Bob Badour said at January 29, 2004 8:22 AM:

It occurs to me, if the process of getting hooked up for a meeting is sufficiently bothersome, the process of monitoring could improve meeting productivity by killing off all those useless "touchy-feely" meetings with no clear agenda.

Pat said at February 5, 2004 10:15 AM:

This technology is not a good idea. Here's why. It encourages managers and other team members to select their response based on someone's mood. Imagine an important, business-critical project needs resources. Now, someone who's competent can be angry and tired, and a doofus can be happy, but who's going to do a better job? Or another scenario: what if someone's reading your mood and decides to capitalize on it? For example, (hypothetical team member) Andy is known for having an uncontrolled temper. His teammate Bob sees that Andy is already peeved, even if he's hiding it. If both of them are up for the same promotion, what's Bob going to do? Get under Andy's skin until Andy has an outburst. Now Bob has the promotion because he tricked Andy. Underhandedness gets rewarded. Here's a third objection: what you think and feel is the only private thing left. You control whether or not you share this information directly. Making it as publicly available as water at a drinking fountain sounds really invasive.

Of course, I could be over-reacting. Maybe every single mood I have should be company property. After all, they already monitor my email, phone use, web surfing, arrival and departure times. I hope they can later declare it proprietary -- that would be super-neet.

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