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- Eliza Strickland

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.

When you sign up to labour 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 aluminium 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,” 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 labour 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.

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