Artist Creates a "Factory of the Future" With Machines Controlled by Brain Waves

A new exhibit by experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats challenges participants to think about the future of work

4 min read

A woman wearing a brain-scanning headset controls a shiny aluminum machine with her neural signals.
A participant in the Mental Work exhibit uses a brain-scanning headset to make a machine crank into action.
Photo: Adrien Baraka

When you sign up to labor in the “Mental Work” factory, you’re equipped with a brain-scanning headset and taught how to use it. The headset uses EEG electrodes to record your brainwaves, and the associated software can pick out specific patterns. The factory overseer explains that this brain-computer interface has been programmed to respond to a neural pattern that occurs when you imagine squeezing a ball in your hand.

Then you’re introduced to the machines you’ll be controlling. They are things of beauty, made of lightweight aluminum and finished in chrome. At three stations of increasing complexity, you’ll use your brain signals to manage the machines’ operations, causing them to manufacture… deep thoughts? The future? That part isn’t entirely clear. 

Photo shows the entrance to a building. Above the doors are written the words 'Mental Work: The Cognitive Revolution Starts Here.'

Photo: Adrien Baraka

The Mental Work factory is a participatory art installation by the provocateur and “experimental philosopher” Jonathon Keats, made in collaboration with neuroscientists at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland. The exhibit just opened at EPFL’s ArtLab, where the factory will be up and running through January. After that, eager would-be workers can take part in the experience at Swissnex San Francisco and then Swissnex Boston

Experimental philosophers apparently don’t spend their time in hushed libraries writing scholarly articles. Instead, Keats takes the questions he’s wrestling with and plunks them down in the real world. “We need an open space in which to encounter possible futures,” he tells IEEE Spectrum, “where we can physically and experientially grapple with them.”

Keats’ inspiration for the Mental Work project is rooted in the Industrial Revolution, when machines of iron and steel replaced human sweat and sinews. Now, Keats argues, we’re in the middle of a Cognitive Revolution, and artificial intelligence may replace our human brainpower.

The upheaval caused by the Industrial Revolution showed that “a lot of people can get hurt and be displaced even as society is being improved by a new technology,” Keats says. “We need to have foresight: We need to think about what relationship we want to have with these new technologies before they have the power to determine what our society becomes.” Keats hopes the people who labor in the Mental Work factory will come out with ideas about what kind of technological future they want, and will work to bring it about.  

[For much more on possible AI futures, see IEEE Spectrum's Q&A with Max Tegmark about superintelligent AI, cosmic apocalypse, and Life 3.0.]

Photo shows a large hall with three shiny silver machines positioned in it, each with an accompanying worker console.

Photo: Adrien Baraka

So how does controlling shiny machines with your brain relate to AI and the future of work? Keats says the brain-computer interface (BCI) shows a way in which humans could work together with machines, rather than be rendered obsolete by them. What’s more, participants who progress through the three stations of the exhibit will experience three different relationships with the technology.

A shiny silver machine called a slider crank shown against a black backdrop.

Photo: Adrien Baraka

The three machines are types of slider cranks, 19th century mechanisms that Keats found in a Victorian era book called 507 Mechanical Movements. To operate the first and simplest crank, the worker uses the EEG-captured neural signal to turn the machine on and alter its speed. Watching the machine start to move based on thoughts alone can feel like magic, and can provoke the same kind of awe that comes from contemplating today’s AI masterworks (such as the Google AI that taught itself to be the world’s best Go player in three days, without any help). People look at the outcomes achieved by a new technology and wonder: How did it do that? 

The second device has gears that make it mechanically more complex, and its control system is also more elaborate. Here, two workers are required, one whose brainwaves operate the machine and another to act as a supervisor who adjusts the control settings. The supervisor can change the BCI’s threshold for responding to a neural signal, meaning that the BCI can either activate the machine based on weak signals (but also potentially based on false positives), or it can require a strong signal that might be difficult for the operator to produce. Keats says this station is akin to opening up the “black box” of AI. “Our technology today has these hidden layers, which may be making assumptions that we’re not cognizant of,” Keats says.  

A shiny silver machine is on a pedestal against a black backdrop. A person sits behind a screen nearby.

Photo: Adrien Baraka

The third and final machine also requires two people. In this case, the supervisor chooses between two brain signals that the operator can generate to run the machine: either the signal associated with the imagined hand-squeezing, which requires focus and can be quite tiring to produce, or a less precise signal using the alpha brainwaves associated with mental relaxation. Keats says this station represents a change in the power dynamic. Based on the operator’s mental state, as revealed at the second station, the supervisor can “make informed decisions about what kind of interaction takes place between the human and machine.” 

All three slider cranks convert rotary motion into linear motion—but that linear motion doesn’t do any physical work in the world. Nothing moves down an assembly line, nothing is manufactured. 

A complex silver machine sits on a pedestal against a black background.

Photo: Adrien Baraka

Keats created this installation in collaboration with the EPFL neuroscience laboratory of Professor José del Millán, which specializes in BCI technology. For example, Millán’s team recently built a BCI that two paraplegic athletes used to compete in the world’s first cyborg Olympics—an adventure the team recently wrote about for IEEE Spectrum in the article, “How We Won Gold in the Cyborg Olympics’ Brain Race.

This physicalized thought experiment is Keats’ latest exploration of the frontiers of science and technology. His prior projects include buying and selling San Francisco real estate in the extra dimensions of spacetime posited by string theory, offering quantum entanglement ceremonies as an alternative to weddings, and creating an academic program for slime molds (ongoing now at Hampshire College). 

With the wide-ranging creativity and playfulness of Keats’ work, it seems a fairly safe bet that AI won’t replace him anytime soon. Although it would be interesting to see what would happen if he fed all his artist’s statements, photos, and articles about his projects into an AI system that was tasked with finding the pattern in the data and producing something similar. Could he create the world’s first AI experimental philospher?  

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