Electrodes weren’t designed with coarse hair in mind – here’s why that’s a problem.
On March 11, Science News, an independent American magazine, published an article noting new electrodes technology can now better capture brain waves of people with naturally coarse hair. As innovative as this new technology is, the public response to the announcement revealed a very telling statement about the current state of STEM.
The article detailed the design flaws of standard electrodes that exclude people with natural, thick hair and how these flaws pose a threat to proper diagnoses of patients. Engineer Pulkit Grover of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh stated that an electrode redesign was needed.
“It’s not intentional. But at the same time, it’s kind of sad,” said Grover. “It’s worth thinking about technology, and about who it has been designed for.”
Reactions to the new design across social media included declarations of relief that “finally” this technology exists. However, there were also criticisms of why technology specific to Black people should have been invented, to begin with.
🗣FINALLY. I can’t tell you how frustrating this was to be a Ph.D. Student and not be able to pilot EEG studies on myself.
— Dr. Denae Ford Robinson (@denaefordrobin) March 11, 2020
— christophergaskins (@neurosciOT) March 16, 2020
Reactions like these sparked a comment directly calling out the medical and tech industries for neglecting patients of color.
Being "inclusive" in medical care is a disgraceful approach to this.
The neglect actually hinders medical professionals' ability to diagnose their patients.
Clinical Tech Companies should do better to put their products through extensive trials to accommodate any patient.
— 🗣️A Voice of Reason 🇬🇧 (@InTheWoke2020s) March 16, 2020
The Twitter user brought up a valid point recognizing that being inclusive in science and medicine is not the approach we should take. This sends a message to Black people and people of color that they’re not valued enough during the trial process of testing out a new technology used to better serve the community. It tells us that Black people are an afterthought and these innovations aren’t designed for us.
Carnegie Mellon University undergraduate student Arnelle Etienne, a Black woman, combed through scientific research and brought some observations to light on EEG technology when she joined Grover’s laboratory.
“I noticed that a lot of the current solutions wouldn’t work for my hair type,” said Etienne.
She also pointed out that many EEG technicians ask patients to straighten or steam their hair before implementing the electrode tests.
Together, Etienne, Grover, and Tarana Laroia, another undergraduate student tested out their theory of thick, coarse hair possibly interfering with the standard technology. The results they found showed that standard electrodes performed better on people with looser hair types. Grover shared that the issue with electrodes and coarse hair “doesn’t require the deepest, most amazing science to get a solution. It requires a good integration with the culture and the understanding of the clinical environment.”
While the newfound technology is progress for Black people, it also reinforces underlying issues in the STEM industry. We shouldn’t applaud science for taking steps to make new technology and trends inclusive when they should have already been inclusive for all people. Besides, pointing out that natural coarse hair weakens the use of technology says more about STEM than the group of people it’s excluding.