The silver lining of virtual school for some autistic students / Humans + Tech - #52

+ Uber’s ‘robo-firing’ of drivers targeted in latest European lawsuit + They dreamed of esports glory. Then their bodies broke down. + How an algorithm blocked kidney transplants to black patients


I hope all of you had a great week :)

Here are this week’s articles.

The silver lining of virtual school for some autistic students

The pandemic has taught us that virtual schools are not feasible in the long-term. It’s difficult on the children, difficult for the teachers, and difficult for parents. But some autistic children are starting to become more social online - more so than they had been before the pandemic [Meryl Alper / Slate].

Caleb is a black autistic child, living with his mother Audrey, and sister Erica in one of the neighbourhoods in Boston that is hard hit by the coronavirus.

Caleb and his friends coordinated this social space; it wasn’t something that his teachers made them work together on. And Audrey was glad that he was applying his newfound independence and comfort with technology to strengthen social bonds with his peers. “It’s good to see them, the way they [are] playing,” she said, “He’s also doing homework with them. If they have a question, they can talk to each other about it, so that’s pretty amazing.” Though Caleb played a lot on Roblox before the pandemic, it was a mostly solitary activity. “Now,” Audrey said, “he’s actually playing with the person and talking to them.”

Audrey, although grateful for Caleb’s increasing comfort with socialising with his friends, still worries about Caleb getting addicted to his devices, the strangers he interacts with on Roblox, and difficulty transitioning to other activities. But what she worries about more, is once the pandemic is over, how Caleb and his friends are going to transition back to real life and what impact it will have on them.

Families of students on the spectrum are coping with significant uncertainty, and some much more than others due to factors like unemployment, housing instability, and structural racism, as in the case of Caleb and his family. But there is something to be learned from the complex ways autistic kids’ online and offline worlds are shaping each other. This “new normal” has brought about social opportunities for many kids who never fit the neurotypical mold to begin with.

Uber’s ‘robo-firing’ of drivers targeted in latest European lawsuit

In July 2020, Uber drivers in the UK filed a lawsuit against Uber targeting Uber’s use of profiling and algorithmic management of gig workers in Europe [Natasha Lomas / TechCrunch]. This is particularly interesting because it falls under Article 22 of the EU GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation,) which is a possible avenue to prevent the use of AI to determine the fate of humans.

Article 22 gives people the right to demand that automated decisions are not made regarding them and that a human makes them. It also compels the operators of the AI to provide suitable safeguards, the most important of which is an explanation of how the algorithm works.

In many AI systems, operators are not aware of how the AI reaches its decisions. This problem of algorithmic accountability (or lack of) is spread over many uses of AI across many industries.

A few days ago, the App Drivers & Couriers Union (ACDU) filed another case against Uber for ‘robo-firing’ — the use of automated systems to identify fraudulent activity and terminate drivers based on that analysis [Natasha Lomas / TechCrunch].

The ADCU case contends that Uber drivers in the UK and Portugal have been “wrongly accused of ‘fraudulent activity‘ as detected by Uber systems before being fired without right of appeal”.

“In each of the cases the drivers were dismissed after Uber said its systems had detected fraudulent activity on the part of the individuals concerned. The drivers absolutely deny that they were in any way engaged in fraud and Uber has never made any such complaint to the police. Uber has never given the drivers access to any of the purported evidence against them nor allowed them the opportunity to challenge or appeal the decision to terminate,” it writes in a press release about the action.

It will be interesting to see how the EU courts rule in this case, particularly with regards to how they apply the law in Article 22 of the GDPR. This could set a precedent for the use of algorithmic decision-making systems. With companies such as Amazon starting to venture into algorithmic management of employees [Betty Joita / TechTheLead], this could have broad implications across a variety of industries.

They dreamed of esports glory. Then their bodies broke down.

In recent issues, I highlighted articles that showed that online gaming could help us become better humans and how video games are helping veterans with PTSD and depression. As with everything, there is a negative side too. With professional gaming now a billion-dollar industry and a global audience of half a billion people, gaming is also taking a physical and mental toll on players [WIRED].

Julia Bright, a 20-year old in North Carolina, was aiming to become a professional esports star. Those that make it can earn six-figure salaries. She neglected to exercise her wrists and ended up with a torn ligament and displaced tendon on her wrist. After surgery and long rehab session, she only plays in 40-minute sessions and has given up hopes of becoming a professional gamer.

Lindsey Migliore, a doctor who is also a gamer, came to realize the physical impacts of gaming when a group of her gamer friends all started experiencing hand pains around the same time.

She knows how bad things can get. A handful of gamers Migliore has worked with directly have been left with constant pain. “Over time, you get these chronic micro traumas, these tears,” she explains, describing what can happen to human tissues after years of button-mashing. Then, a slight but sudden shock to that musculature, anything from pushing a heavy bag into a car boot or swinging a bowling ball can cause a bigger injury in the worn out tissue.

And while she hasn’t seen a displaced tendon like the one suffered by Bright among any of her own patients yet, she acknowledges that it’s something that could happen to a gamer. Esports athletes, she says, perform up to 600 actions per minute with their fingers while playing some games. But human hands evolved for climbing trees.

It’s not only the physical impact. Gaming can also have severe mental effects on players. China’s most famous esports star, a 23-year old, announced his retirement in June due to deterioration of his mental and physical health.

And the mental effects can also be caused by the intense pressure and toxicity players face on social media.

Unlike in any other sport, esports and social media are inexorably intertwined. As a result players and others in the industry can feel the heat of online toxicity perhaps even more acutely than their counterparts in traditional sports. Pye remembers interacting with players on the receiving end of online abuse two years ago, while living in Shanghai. Hearing their stories and trying to help them cope affected him so badly that Pye “became a hermit” and didn’t leave his apartment for days on end. “It utterly broke me a couple of times in that year,” he says.

Many are now realising that esports athletes require the same care in diet, exercise, and sleep that traditional athletes need. Fabian Broich, a sports psychologist and head of performance at Excel Esports in the UK, has established these requirements and routines for players.

Meals are carefully planned with nutrition in mind, and snacks are limited to healthy options like nuts, berries and dark chocolate. Players also have plenty of time to recuperate by meditating, doing yoga or reading. Since the team spends so much time indoors, they’re given vitamin D and other nutrient supplements, including calcium and magnesium, both of which can improve sleep.

Sleep is of particular interest to Broich, who eagerly monitors the nightly slumber of every teammate. They all have Oura rings, which they wear in bed and which use vital sign measurements to quantify things like deep sleep – when the body releases growth hormones and repairs tissues. Broich can see the latest results for each of his players at a glance – data he also shares with them regularly. As a result of his work, the team became so interested in improving their sleep scores that they started competing with one another over who had the best night’s kip.

It’s good to see that professionals are working on improving the health and wellness of esports athletes. As a relatively young genre, there is still a lot to learn about their specific needs for nutrition, hydration, exercise, and mental stability to help them perform optimally.

How an algorithm blocked kidney transplants to black patients

In another case of algorithmic racism, black people in the US have had their kidney transplants blocked [Tom Simonite / WIRED].

A new study of patients in the Boston area is one of the first to document the harm that can cause. It examined the effect on care of a widely used but controversial formula for estimating kidney function that by design assigns Black people healthier scores.

The study analyzed health records for 57,000 people with chronic kidney disease from the Mass General Brigham health system that includes Harvard teaching hospitals Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women's. One third of Black patients, more than 700 people, would have been placed into a more severe category of kidney disease if their kidney function had been estimated using the same formula as for white patients.

That could have affected decisions such as when to refer someone to a kidney specialist, or refer them for a kidney transplant. In 64 cases, patients’ recalculated scores would have qualified them for a kidney transplant wait list. None had been referred or evaluated for transplant, suggesting that doctors did not question the race-based recommendations.

Although support is growing for an alternate formula that is not race-based, until medical societies change their guidelines, the current method is unlikely to be scrapped soon.

Quote of the week

“At one point as traditional athletes, your body is done, your muscles are done, you can’t actually perform any more, whereas, for an esports player, unfortunately, the brain just keeps going.”

—Fabian Broich, in the article, “They dreamed of esports glory. Then their bodies broke down” [WIRED]

I wish you a brilliant day ahead :)