Deep Dives

How Brain Computer Interface Technology Could Transform The Workplace

photo credit: RegionSud

During the May 9 Olympic Torch Relay in France, a torch bearer with a motor disability (pictured here) used a new generation neural interface powered by Generative AI to control her arm’s exoskeleton with her brainwaves and facial expressions.

Sports are just the start. If Inclusive Brains, the French startup behind the technology, has its way, its brain-computer interface technology will be a game changer, transforming the workplace as we know it through mind reading. It is a shift that, done right, promises to make work more inclusive and help employees to be more productive and less stressed.

Just days before the torchbearer gave a very public demonstration of its technology Inclusive Brains announced a partnership with trade credit insurer Allianz Trade to further develop Prometheus, a brain-machine interface that transforms diverse neurophysiological data (brainwaves, heart activity, facial expressions, eye-movements) into mental commands. The goal of this innovative assistive technology is to help individuals who can no longer use their hands or speak, to operate workstations and to navigate digital environments without the need to type on a keyboard, to touch a screen, or to use vocal commands.

Eventually, Allianz Trade and Inclusive Brains say they will accelerate the development of AI-powered assistive solutions that give people with disabilities more autonomy and facilitate their access to the workforce.

It is literally the embodiment of AI for Good, says co-founder Professor Olivier Oullier, co-founder & CEO, Inclusive Brains and Chairman, Institute for Artificial Intelligence by Biotech Dental. Oullier, a neuroscientist turned AI entrepreneur, and Paul Barbaste, a cyber security and AI expert, founded the company in 2022 with an ambitious and clear mission: to leverage the combination of Generative AI and Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI) to improve the inclusion of people who lost the ability to move because of life accidents or neurodegenerative diseases. Disability affects more than one billion individuals globally. Some 50 million suffer from quadriplegia preventing them from studying or working.

The multimodal AI agents at the core of this neurotechnology are starting to be used to collect data about employees’ stress levels and improve performance in the workplace, says Oullier. He says Inclusive Brains is already piloting the technology for this purpose, with positive results.

The technology’s promise is garnering a lot of attention. Inclusive Brains was selected to be one of the ten startups that will be represent the country at President Emmanuel Macron’s Choose France Summit on May 13, an event that gathers Fortune 500 CEOs to encourage them to partner/develop business in France. The United Nations has asked the startup to give a keynote and demonstration at its AI for Good Summit May 30-31 in Geneva and it has been selected to showcase its AI for Good technology at the Vision Gulf event organized by the French Ministry of Economics and Finance in Paris on June 4 and 5 with France’s partners from the Middle East.

No Longer Science Fiction

Research on the BCI began in the 1970s in California with experiments performed on animals to develop a new, direct communication path between external environments (or devices) and the brain. In 1973 Jacques Vidal published a paper titled: “Toward Direct Brain-Computer Communications.”  The very first tests with the BCI development were carried out on monkeys in 1969 and 1970 and in 1998 Philip Kennedy implanted the first invasive BCI into a human.

“Over the last few decades, Brain-Computer Interfaces have been gradually making their way to the epicenter of scientific interest,” says a research paper published by The United States National Library of Medicine (NLM), which is operated by the United States federal government.

Many scientists from all around the world have contributed to the state of the art in this scientific domain by developing numerous tools and methods for brain signal acquisition and processing. “The common effort has resulted in pushing the whole domain to the point where the communication between a human being and the external world through BCI interfaces is no longer science fiction but nowadays reality,” says the NLM research paper.

In the case of Inclusive Brains’ technology wireless mobile brain sensors monitor electrical activity of the user’s brain. Its proprietary multimodal signal processing algorithms and Cognitive AI process brainwaves, eye movements, facial expressions and heart rate and translate them into mental commands in real time. This allows the user to control a connected object such as a computer, a robot, or a vehicle without having to move, touch or speak. The French startup’s solutions also include cognitive, affective, and sensorimotor monitoring for its AI to be trained, constantly improve and adapt to the needs, learning process and novel challenges faced by workers with disabilities who cannot move any limb or speak.

Unlike Elon Musk’s Neuralink technology, which requires brain implants, Inclusive Brain’s technology is noninvasive and hardware agnostic, says Oullier.  It can be used with a lot of off-the-shelf wearable neurophysiological sensors (a kind of electronic headband) with sensors and algorithms.

Giving “Wired Workplace” A Whole New Meaning

It is not unusual for technology designed for people with disabilities to go mainstream. Oullier cites the television remote control as a prime example. “Research and development on assistive technologies is not only the right thing to do it is good business,” he says. That maxim holds true for BCI, he says.

“Today there is not a single business in the world, or public organization, that wouldn’t benefit from improving the way people interact with machines,” he says.  In future, he says, “we will personalize our interactions with machines, rather than buying them off-the-shelf and empower the machines to understand us better.”

If we want machines to adapt to who we are and what we are feeling in real time machines will need to integrate signals from our brain and body, says Oullier. “In the same way that large language models (LLM) are trained with text, we train our AI agents with brain waves, eye tracking, voice, intonation, facial expressions and heartbeats and we will be adding respiration and keystroke movement.”

In a business setting the information garnered from these measurements registers things like attention, cognitive load, stress, and fatigue.

One of the sectors Inclusive Brains’ multi-modal AI agents could significantly impact is healthcare delivery, particularly in optimizing the wellness and performance of medical professionals and patients to enhance outcomes, says Oullier.  For example, Inclusive Brains conducted a research study at Abu Dhabi’s International Knee & Joint Centre, monitoring the brainwaves of two orthopedic surgeons during several surgeries on the same day, he says. The objective was to better understand their stress management and cognitive load. Inclusive Brains is also collaborating with the Biotech Dental group to monitor patient stress, enabling dental surgeons to optimally time more challenging procedures.

Some worry that the technology has the potential to erode mental privacy and supercharge authoritarian surveillance.

Oullier says this is not the case and people should be more concerned by the corporate use of cognitive and personality tests that have been proven for decades to have little predictive power. Data collected by Inclusive Brains is anonymized, and any analysis of work performance is done at a group, rather than individual level, he says. “We don’t provide HR with individual measures,” he says.  “We take time to explain to people what we do with the data,” he says, “and before anything else we ask for their consent. The programs are on an opt-in basis.”

Inclusive Brains’ technology “is there to assist people to do their best work at a minimum cost physically and mentally and to help organizations get better performance from their employees with less stress, decreasing absenteeism and mental health issues, by helping them to see how they might organize the work differently,” Oullier says.

He cites pilot use cases of Inclusive Brains’ technology which involved simple changes, such giving people permission to start work 15 minutes later or moving the time of a meeting to when people where more mentally alert, which resulted in better performance by employees.

Why do we need AI to tell us that?  “I have worked my entire career as a scientist and one of the hardest things I have had to deal with is things that people consider to be obvious but involve super hard behavioral changes,” says Oullier. The ability to collect hard data to make a case helps, he says.

As for fears that Big Brother (or the boss) is not only looking over your shoulder but reading your mind, Oullier says that during pilots conducted by Inclusive Brains some 60% of employees agreed to opt in. “These people become our best ambassadors,” he says, and usually within two months more employees agree to use the technology.

Machines That Understand Us

The auto industry has added sensors to cars that can detect when we become drowsy behind the wheel, says Oullier. “They are becoming AI on wheels and are there to help you make decisions, save your life, and take you from point A to point B  so why are cars the only technologies that protect the mental and physical safety of their users in real time?, he asks. “Why can’t my laptop be as assistive and protective as a car would be and adapt to how I feel? ”

Inclusive Brains’ goal is to “create cognitive AI agents that can be used in computers, phones and in every wearable to enable them to be come truly adaptive,” says Oullier. The company is currently fundraising so that it can bring the technology to a larger market, boosting its own business by bringing cognitive AI into the workplace to improve inclusivity, performance and well-being .

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About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.