Chinese parents want students to wear dystopian brainwave-detecting headbands

Society & Culture

In today’s dystopian news: An elite primary school in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province is making its students wear brainwave-reading headbands that can supposedly detect their attention levels in the classroom.

The practice was exposed in a series of photos that are now going viral on the Chinese internet. In two pictures, students at Jiangnan Experimental School can be seen wearing black electronic headbands while in class.

The devices are produced by BrainCo Inc., a Harvard University-backed startup based in Boston. According to a sponsored piece of content published on PRNewswire, the high-tech company is dedicated to developing Brain Machine Interface technology with a focus on big data and brain science. The students in Hangzhou were given the Focus 1, a flagship product of BrainCo, which detects and quantifies students’ attention levels. The headbands come with a portal called Focus EDU, which the company boasts as “the world’s first classroom portal for teachers to assess the effectiveness of their teaching methods in real time and make adjustments accordingly.”

As the photos suggest, the analytical system seems to be working pretty well at the school. One photo shows a digital screen that displays real-time ranking of students’ concentration levels. At the end of a class, the portal provides a report that highlights students with the three highest scores.



A bit of research reveals that Jiangnan Experimental School is far from the only educational institution in China that has embraced the brain-machine interface. The reported (in Chinese) in February that in the city of Jinhua, Zhejiang Province, a primary school introduced the same products in its classrooms. Teachers are able to tell what students are not paying attention based on colors that light up on their headbands.

BrainCo’s sales strategy appears to be heavily China-focused, perhaps targeting Chinese parents who are overbearing and grade-obsessed. PRNewswire notes that BrainCo locked a lucrative multi-million dollar deal with one of China’s leading import and export companies in 2017. According to another 2017 article by EdSurge, a website focused on education technology, the company scored $15 million in venture funding from Chinese investors.

The photos provoked a wave of angry reactions on Chinese media. Some found the revelation especially eerie after the recent news about street cleaners in Nanjing being forced to wear digital wristbands that monitor their job performance.

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“This seems no different to me than a scene from a horror movie.”

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“I suggest adding a feature of electric shock, which can wake up sleepy students in class.”

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“Seeing this makes me upset and emotional. I have two close friends who used to work in the U.S. headquarters of this company. According to them, the work environment is excellent and there are a lot of talented people in the company. The idea behind their products is not particularly bad, but my friends decided to quit their jobs because they felt the products were used in an unethical way, which betrayed their original intentions when they joined the firm.”

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“What did these children do wrong to deserve this life of constant monitoring? It boggles my mind that we can’t put ankle bracelets on pedophiles but it’s astonishingly easy to put headbands on these powerless kids.”

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“I see a commonality in this story and the news about street cleaners wearing wristbands. The main takeaway is that children and people of a lower class don’t have human rights and dignity. Now I’ve come to realize why Yang Yongxin has so many followers. For the parents who send their children to internet detox camps, they care about nothing but raising their children into obedient and filial offsprings.”

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“I don’t see happiness on their faces. They are human beings, not robots.”

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“I wonder how these parents agreed to let their children wear that. Do you wear the same thing at work? If they are opposed to the idea, why would they force their children to wear that?”

The Onion Sports, a Weibo account mimicking its American predecessor, offered a satirical take on the news, writing (in Chinese):

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“Players on the Chinese national football team are forced to wear intelligent ankle bracelets that will send alerts if they stand still for more than five seconds. Recently, the Chinese Football Association gave every players on the national team a special ankle bracelet, which, in addition to sports features, blasts warnings that feature a human voice saying “I’m sorry” if the players stand still on a pitch for more than 5 seconds. If they still refuse to move, they will receive an electric shock. After the first day of wearing it, players said their ‘feet felt a bit numb!’”