People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Asia has recently conducted three investigations into Thailand’s coconut industry. In a shocking turn of events, its latest inquiry revealed a shocking connection to everyone’s favourite meal kit company, HelloFresh, and the fact that it might have been using monkeys to do its dirty work.
According to the report, which was carried out over eight months from December 2021 to July 2022, PETA discovered that—despite the Thai government previously denying monkey labor was still used in making the exported products—chained monkeys were continually forced to spend long hours climbing tall trees and picking heavy coconuts.
The animal protection organisation reported witnessing a number of young macaque monkeys (which are the most commonly used species) kept in small cages and separated from one another—despite the fact these particular animals are incredibly social and crave interaction.
Monkeys ‘in training’ are kept chained with rigid metal collars around their necks. Handlers use intimidation and abuse to teach them to obey. Investigative footage taken by PETA showed one trainer striking a monkey, dangling him by the neck, and then whipping him with the tether. Once their training is complete, the animals are then sold to coconut pickers where they are repeatedly mistreated, yanked from trees, and manhandled.
The nonprofit organisation has stated that HelloFresh is fully aware that two of the coconut milk suppliers it uses partake in extensive animal abuse and yet it refuses to act. The report further informed the public that Suree, an affiliate of the meal kit company, works with a supplier that kept monkeys chained on flooded land or trash-strewn patches of dirt with almost no protection from the elements. Furthermore, a worker in Suree’s supply chain also told investigators that the monkeys would be forced to pick coconuts for more than a decade before being “retired”—chained up for the rest of their lives.
CBS News reported that HelloFresh claimed it received written assurances from its suppliers that the coconuts are not procured using monkeys. It stated: “HelloFresh strictly condemns any use of monkey labor in its supply chain, and we take a hard position of not procuring from suppliers or selling coconut products which have been found to use monkey labor. We have written confirmation from all of our suppliers—in the US and globally—that they do not engage in these practices.”
However, this most recent report shines a much darker light on the Berlin-based company. The recent discovery is not the first time HelloFresh has found itself in hot water. In 2021, a number of employees at the company faced an aggressive anti-union campaign, as reported by The Guardian. Workers alleged a culture of intimidation, disrespect, and aggression had soured the company environment.
Aindra Hernandez, an employee in the quality assurance department at HelloFresh, told the news outlet: “There have been so many problems with disrespect, with not being given the material we need to work, and injuries happening in the workplace. It’s very unjust that all of this treatment gets so normalised. There are so many people who fear getting sent home early or the managers being upset with them, like I was sent home, and that makes workers very afraid. We need to change that.”
However, this scandal didn’t ultimately impact HelloFresh’s growth, as just last year the company took home $420.3 million in profits. So, only time will tell if ‘guilty by association’ may impact this titan of the industry.
Forget Space X or Hyperloop, Elon Musk’s ambitious neurotechnology project has just made a breakthrough akin to your wildest sci-fi fantasy: a monkey is now able to play Pong solely with its mind. The demonstration by the company Neuralink is a prime example of a brain-machine interface in action. With human trials set to start later this year, what does this mean for humanity as we know it?
Last year, the company successfully implanted a chip into a pig’s brain to measure visual information and sensory data from its snout. Last month, the company successfully implanted a chip into a monkey’s brain so it could play Pong—the two-dimensional sports game that simulates table tennis—using only its mind. It’s safe to say Neuralink is making (brain) waves within the emerging neurotechnology industry.
It all started with a coin-sized disc, called a ‘link’, which is implanted by a precision surgical robot into the monkey’s brain, connecting thousands of micro threads from the chip to neurons responsible for controlling motion. The nine-year-old monkey called Pager—presumably unaware that it’s the centrepiece of a scientific breakthrough and internet fame—had two Neurolink devices put on each side of his brain six weeks before. Pager was then taught to use a joystick to move a cursor to targets on a screen in exchange for a banana smoothie. What could possibly go wrong, right?
The ‘link’ device then records the monkey’s neuron activity while he interacts with the joystick and cursor. The narrator of the video explains this is only possible due to thousands of tiny wires implanted into Pager’s motor cortex—the part of the brain that coordinates hand and arm movements. The data is then fed into a decoder algorithm, predicting Pager’s intended hand movements in real-time.
Neuralink claims that once the decoder is calibrated, the monkey is free to control the cursor without relying on the joystick—essentially controlling the cursor with only its mind. The joystick is then deactivated as the video shows the monkey playing Pong with, and only with, its mind. It’s proof of the astonishing scientific advances we humans can achieve—Pager is able to play Pong telepathically with more accuracy than I ever could on my 2008 flip phone.
To put it bluntly, it’s too early to tell. However, there is reason to believe we’re witnessing the emergence of a new technology that could have a serious impact on society. Bearing in mind that this is mostly hypothetical, aside from Pager’s ability to play a video game telepathically, which is now objective science—let’s start with the positives.
Neuralink claims that the technology could assist people who are paralysed from brain or spinal injuries, giving them the ability to control computerised devices with their minds—similar to how Pager was able to control a cursor with just his brain. If all goes to plan, it would be an invaluable way for paraplegics, quadriplegics or victims of strokes to live a free and autonomous life. The ‘link’ chip might also be able to connect with other technology, for instance, making prosthetic limbs feel ‘real’.
This experiment’s success also touches upon how the technology could, theoretically, be a valuable treatment for psychological and neurological conditions like depression or addiction—even claiming to restore senses for those who are blind or deaf. This is all very up there but there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic of how developments in neurotechnology could drastically change medicine as we know it, and for the good.
It’s worth noting the positives go beyond therapeutic value too. The technology could offer a faster way of interacting with computers—we wouldn’t be limited to the QWERTY keyboard anymore, instead, we’d be able to send messages at the speed of thought. Granted, this would make being ghosted by your Tinder match that extra bit painful.
Scientists have also theorised that the technology could connect brains to the cloud. This would essentially change human intelligence as we know it—an individual’s ‘native’ intelligence could be augmented by accessing cloud-based artificial intelligence. It sounds whacky now but imagine explaining Google to someone in the early 90s.
Alright, I’m going to burst the positive bubble here: criminals have, and most likely always will adapt to new technology in order to exploit the vulnerable. It’s happened with credit cards, with the internet, and it even happened with COVID-19—there’s no reason to believe that once this technology is mainstream, it’ll be invincible to those with bad intentions.
Scientists warn that without “bulletproof security”, hackers could access implanted chips, causing malfunctions or misdirections of their actions. Similar to that Wallace and Gromit episode where an evil penguin hacked the robotic trousers to steal from a bank, staging Wallace in the process—only with much darker consequences. A device vulnerable to such actions could be fatal for the disabled individuals the technology serves to benefit.
It’s an ethical and philosophical issue that still plagues the neurotechnology field to this day. And if that wasn’t complicated enough, some have raised concerns that developments in AI working through a brain-machine interface could take control of the host’s brain through nanotechnology. The very man himself, Elon Musk, has previously warned that AI poses an existential threat to humanity—claiming AI is set to overtake humans in less than five years.
It’s a tricky ethical minefield to manoeuvre. And if animal testing wasn’t unethical enough, human trials are set to start at the beginning of this year. Scientists have warned that we must devote enough time and effort to building safeguards. However, if implemented safely, the technology could bring enormous positives to society.
As for me: I’m a writer, not a scientist, there’s little value I can add to the discussion other than what I’ve already said. I guess it’s a waiting game—if in twenty years I can order a pizza just by thinking (and my brain isn’t hacked by cybercriminals), I’ll be happy knowing science has done its job.