Imagine being able to predict how a prospective employee’s brain will behave under stress. Candidates whose cognitive functions do not suit the speed or complexity of particular tasks could be culled from the shortlist, saving time and the cost of replacing burnt-out employees. That’s just one function of BrainGauge, a patented technology that has been seven years in the making at National ICT Australia (NICTA).
The technology not only helps managers select candidates with the right stuff, but also helps identify when workers are overloaded. In call centres, the smart software can even reallocate work.
BrainGauge is being tested by emergency services organisations and call centres in Australia and Canada. The software assesses brain activity through behaviour signals, says NICTA project leader Fang Chen, who is also a conjoint professor in the School of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
“Based on speech patterns, BrainGauge is able to judge whether someone has, or still has, the mental capacity to deal with a problem,” Chen says.
The software uses separate tests to assess different skills. The job test takes less than 15 minutes and uses a standard computer microphone and online voice-analysis software. The software identifies when an employee is overloaded by monitoring speech patterns and an alert is triggered when fatigue is setting in.
So far BrainGauge has been used by several organisations, such as the New South Wales Roads and Traffic Authority, to monitor the cognitive overload of employees who manage Sydney’s growing traffic snarl. A telecommunications company has used it to boost the effectiveness of service quality management, while the software has helped an Australian defence research organisation to assess the mental load on individuals during air operations. An international emergency service organisation has also used BrainGauge and in Canada it’s being used by emergency services in Ottawa.
The results so far have been impressive, Chen says, but she can’t say much more because of confidentiality requirements.
In one study a group of 191 newly hired people were assessed and classified as “probably fit” or “probably unfit” for their duties. Chen says the use of BrainGauge halved the attrition rate over a 12-week period for that organisation. In another trial, staff turnover in a 1500-seat call centre was reduced by 13 per cent.
BrainGauge is able to judge whether someone has the mental capacity to deal with a problem.– Fang Chen
Another NICTA cognitive monitoring program, the Ecological Human Operator Modelling (ECHO MOD) project, is being developed in partnership with Airservices Australia, the government agency responsible for air traffic control. ECHO MOD will be used to manage the workload of controllers, who at times face challenging demands. At this stage ECHO MOD is using self-reporting to measure workload, says project leader Andrew Neal.
At the University of Technology, Sydney, development of a system that gives early warning of driver fatigue by reading brainwaves is under way and its commercial application is not far off. Industry partners have recently been secured, says researcher Dr Sara Lal. With co-researcher Professor Ashley Craig, Lal has developed and patented software that will trigger three-stage warnings of impending drowsiness based on changes in brainwave activity.
The brainwave-reading technology will ultimately be deployed in cars and trucks and used in aviation, military, mining and railways, Lal says. Confidentiality clauses prevent her from revealing specifics.
Technology that monitors drivers is already being used by transport and mining companies across the world. The Melbourne business Optalert has a package, the Optalert Alertness Monitoring System that monitors eye patterns rather than brainwaves to send fatigue alerts. Drivers wear a pair of glasses that measure the eye in seven ways, the predominant one being velocity of the eyelid. When an eyelid starts to sag, the software sends a warning signal that appears on a device fitted to a dashboard or comes up in a control room.
The technology makes use of the Epworth Sleepiness Scale that calculates daytime drowsiness, developed at Epworth Hospital in Melbourne by Dr Murray Johns, now chief scientist for Optalert. The company says between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of road accidents involve driver fatigue, costing Australia about A$3 billion a year. Fatigue‑related heavy vehicle accidents alone cost about A$300 million a year.
Mining companies have been early adopters of the Optalert system. Ok Tedi Mining, which operates a copper and gold mine in a remote area in Papua New Guinea, was the first company to buy the system for its line haul and bus fleet. Managing director Nigel Parker, who is responsible for a 5000-strong workforce, says driver fatigue is a major issue for the mining company. Narrow roads in mountainous terrain and extreme weather conditions can severely test driver alertness and stamina, he says. “We are choosing to step in with mitigating strategies to prevent future accidents. Optalert is one of those.”
In Latin America, BHP Billiton uses the technology to monitor safety and profile risk at three joint ventures. In Australia, Rio Tinto has used Optalert technology in a hazard risk assessment initiative in which staff are encouraged to pause, identify hazards faced during a journey and modify their behaviour accordingly. The next step will be to use a fitness-for-duty test, which is designed to ensure drivers, particularly shift workers, are fully alert before they hit the road.
The company is promoting the system in the Canadian market and has plans for the US and Europe – Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxemburg in particular.
Fatigue & stress buster
While organisations are an obvious market for cognitive load monitoring devices, there is little doubt technology used to measure brain capacity or fatigue will trickle down to individual users too.
Most recently, Optalert has allowed surgeon Stephen Wilkinson – who drives regularly between Hobart and Launceston in Tasmania – to test its system.
Wilkinson believes as many as a third of Tasmania’s highway accident trauma injuries can be linked to drowsy drivers and concedes the Optalert system has pulled him up a couple of times.
NICTA’s Fang Chen sees even further potential in a range of applications, from defence to video games. The technology could be used in smartphones to help people monitor their stress levels, she suggests.
Not everyone will be comfortable with the idea of having their speech or eye patterns monitored by a kind of Big Brother system. However, NICTA’s Fang Chen maintains that safety is a compelling argument for monitoring.
There are constraints on companies when it comes to setting up hidden video cameras. But Matthew Robinson, a partner in workplace law specialist The FCB Group, says the Federal Court of Australia has found that employers may conduct tests related to work safety.
Robinson says the use of the material is important when considering whether such actions constitute an invasion of privacy. “If the information is considered health-related, it would need to be dealt with under the [Australian] Privacy Act. If it is performance-related, an employer has more freedom with how it is used.”
He says drivers monitored by a high-tech fatigue warning system would be covered by industrial agreements that make consultation with unions necessary.
“This should happen as a matter of good practice in any industry using this technology, to ensure employees are engaged and aware, not paranoid or disenfranchised,” he says.