Google Wants to Track Burnout Through Your Keyboard

The company’s “personal wellness keyboard” patent may signal an interest from tech firms to embed AI in consumer devices.

Photo of a Google patent
Photo via U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

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Google is taking mindfulness beyond phone apps and YouTube tutorials.  

The company filed a patent application for a “personal wellness keyboard” that uses machine learning to track and respond to user sentiments and behaviors through their keystrokes. 

“Prolonged device usage may affect the person’s productivity,” Google said in the filing. “In addition, people may display certain behaviors throughout the day that deviate them from reaching a certain goal.”

Here’s how it works: Google’s system tracks three kinds of user interactions with their keyboard:  typing speed, typing intensity, and content typed. However, Google also notes that this may connect to a trackpad and mouse to obtain “contextual information” about how fast the user reads and what apps they engage with, and may connect to a “wearable sensor” such as a headset or smartwatch that monitors tons of other physical data, such as stress, sweat response and cardiac activity.

The tech would track a user over time to figure out their baseline (i.e., how fast and aggressively they usually type). Then the system would use a trained machine learning model to identify that user’s sentiment compared to their baseline. 

If this system determines that a user is stressed or agitated, it may send “subtle, timely feedback” to quell negative behavior, such as illuminating the keyboard, mouse or trackpad to provide “mood lighting” as a reminder to calm down “without interfering with the user’s task at hand.” 

While this could help improve the user’s stress, Google added that these measures could help improve accuracy and relevance, reduce errors, cut down the time it takes to complete certain workflows and optimize the use of technical resources. 

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen AI-based consumer devices pop up in the patent well. Apple has filed applications for wearables that track your wellbeing using machine learning, and Microsoft has sought to patent a way to turn your backpack into an AI assistant.

And patent filings aren’t the only place we’re seeing AI-powered consumer products come to the fore. Just last month, the Consumer Electronics Show was abuzz with debuts of AI-powered everything, from mirrors that could detect your emotions to pillows that can reduce snoring. Meanwhile, Apple, Google and Samsung are all looking at ways to affix their smartphones with large language models. A patent like this from Google simply adds to the frenzy. 

With its discussion of improving efficiency, productivity and accuracy, Google’s patent seems like it could specifically boost workplace morale. Microsoft has several filings in this vein, including a computer-based wellbeing assessment that tracks your behavior, a way to monitor if you’re working off the clock and tech to track your tone in emails. Monitoring tech like this may be the solution these firms are looking toward as employee burnout continues to rage on, especially in tech

But it’s worth considering how comfortable employees will be about this kind of monitoring. While they may be okay with tracking devices used for their own personal benefit, some may find it intrusive that their keyboard is predicting their emotions as they type out an email to their co-worker.