Wednesday, January 16, 2008

In the news

A little off track, but I saw this story this morning and thought it was worth some general comments. I know little of the particulars and haven't reviewed the patent application myself.... From The Times (via Foxnews) :

Microsoft submitted a patent application in the U.S. for a "unique monitoring system" that could link workers to their computers.

Wireless sensors could read "heart rate, galvanic skin response, EMG, brain signals, respiration rate, body temperature, movement facial movements, facial expressions and blood pressure," the application states.

The system could also "automatically detect frustration or stress in the user" and "offer and provide assistance accordingly."

Physical changes to an employee would be matched to an individual psychological profile based on a worker's weight, age and health.

If the system picked up an increase in heart rate or facial expressions suggestive of stress or frustration, it would tell management that he needed

"This system involves intrusion into every single aspect of the lives of the employees," Hugh Tomlinson, an expert on data protection law at the London law firm Matrix Chambers, said. "It raises very serious privacy issues."

The U.S. Patent Office confirmed Tuesday that the application had been published last month, 18 months after being filed. Patent lawyers said that it could be granted within a year.

Read the whole story here. Read the published patent application here

Are there ethical issues in obtaining patents? Surely there are. I turned down a job once when I found out that the company I applied to was into researching contraceptives and the like. I wasn't going to write patent applications for such things.

How about this patent application? Well, I am not sure the concept itself is unethical-it just has to be used with consent and no pressure and for a good purpose. (For example: Is the concern for the worker or for revenues?)

Yet we know that promises of no pressure don't last long. Many states have laws where you can't force someone to work on Sundays, or punish them if they refuse. But we all know of instances where people get poor schedules or are eventually let go because they want to keep the Sabbath holy.

And, this system may already be in use.

The patent application was filed in June 2006 and describes a system which must be workable to be patented. By this time, I am willing to bet that it has been tested on someone, and may even be implemented in some places.

Microsoft isn't doing this for their own employees necessarily. They may want to introduce it into an office near you!

Technology isn't necessarily bad, but you have to apply it and use it ethically. Unfortunately we are are a low point in ethics in this country. People think things are only wrong if you get caught-there is no real moral right or wrong. So we must be careful with technology.

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