Why are people paying for coaches to get better at video games? / Humans + Tech - Issue #95

+ MIT’s mind-controlled prosthetic hand slips on like a glove + The secret bias hidden in mortgage-approval algorithms + Other interesting articles from around the web


Video-game coaching is now a viable career. And MIT has developed a prosthetic that is soft to touch and controlled with thoughts. Learn more below.

Why are people paying for coaches to get better at video games?

Esports is now a massive industry with 450 million people tuning in as spectators worldwide, annually. This has given rise to video-game coaching as a viable and rapidly growing business [Keith Stuart, The Guardian]. The pandemic has only grown the industry further.

Players can pre-book regular sessions with preferred mentors, or just go online and see who is available. There are various tutorial options, from playing alongside a pro for 30 minutes to longer analysis sessions, and the truly committed can pay monthly subscriptions, like joining a gym. Most coaches work by asking players to send them video footage of their latest matches, which they’ll then analyse together via video calls.

The cost depends on the skill level and prestige of the coach. A 30-minute seminar on how to succeed in esports with famed Valorant streamer and pro player Dicey costs $30, but a spectator game with him for 60 minutes is $120. “He also offers a boot camp,” says Wang. “For $500 you get a session every week and he’ll try to get you to the highest rank possible. He is always booked out.”

To make a sustainable living from gaming takes years of competitive playing, and the chances are very slim. Coaching gives top players a better chance at making money from their skills. Like any other form of coaching, video-game coaches teach not only the skills to play well but also train their students to have the right mentality. And many coaches are even forming friendships and acting as therapists to their clients.

The relationship between game coaches and clients is an interesting hybrid, combining traditional teacher/student interplay with fandom and, yes, friendship. Most of the coaches I spoke to feel there are times when their role is as much about emotional support as it is about gameplay. “We speak to our customers and we know a percentage of them suffer from anxiety, depression or PTSD ,” says Beliankin. “Our pro players often say: ‘Sometimes I feel like I’m a therapist’. Customers tell us about their lives, their pets, their families, their jobs – they don’t just come to play, they come to talk.” Dores tells me about one client of his, a married father, who felt particularly able to open up about his problems to a gay man. “We spoke about his problems, I tried to reply. After that first session, I got a message from him and it broke my heart – he told me I may have stopped him taking his own life. You just never know what people are going through. Some people don’t want to be the best in the world, they just want someone to play with.”

If you told someone twenty years ago that you wanted to be a video-game coach, they would have probably laughed at you. Today, not only is it a viable and legitimate career, but video-game coaches are also serving as therapists and forging friendships. All through technology. Amazing.

MIT’s mind-controlled prosthetic hand slips on like a glove

Researchers at MIT and Shanghai Jiao Tong University have developed a prosthetic hand using soft robotics that works more like our bodies than traditional robotics. They are flexible, strong, and soft to touch. Your thoughts control them, and sensors on the gloves communicate the sensation of touch. Most importantly, unlike traditional prosthetics that cost thousands of dollars, this one only costs $500 [Mark Wilson, FastCompany].

To keep the hand light, a small waistband holds the air pump system. As a result, this soft hand is actually a few grams lighter than a real human hand . . . whereas a mechanical hand can weigh nearly a pound, making it uncomfortable to wear for very long. It’s easy to activate the pump. All you have to do is think about moving your hand, and your arm muscles will fire electronic impulses. The hardware senses the impulses, turning on the pump, and your hand takes the proper shape.

This magic is thanks to the fact that sensors can now measure the electrical impulses in your arm muscles through electromyography, or EMG. While mind-controlled limbs might still seem like the stuff of sci-fi, Zhao says this part of the prosthetic device uses well-established technology. After slipping the hand on, software automatically prompts the user to think of a few specific gestures—like pinching at something small like a flower petal, or grasping something larger like a soda can. Because most people have very similar EMG readings for these types of tasks, the hand can actually read the user’s mind. So in less than two minutes, the hand syncs up with the body’s own wiring to recognize five common hand motions. To move the hand, the user just has to think about moving it.

The secret bias hidden in mortgage-approval algorithms

An investigation by The Markup has found that lenders more often deny home loans to people of colour than to white people. Even if both had similar financial characteristics [Emmanuel Martinez and Lauren Kirchner, The Markup]. And most of these decisions are made by algorithms.

Holding 17 different factors steady in a complex statistical analysis of more than two million conventional mortgage applications for home purchases, we found that lenders were 40 percent more likely to turn down Latino applicants for loans, 50 percent more likely to deny Asian/Pacific Islander applicants, and 70 percent more likely to deny Native American applicants than similar White applicants. Lenders were 80 percent more likely to reject Black applicants than similar White applicants. These are national rates.

In every case, the prospective borrowers of color looked almost exactly the same on paper as the White applicants, except for their race.

One of the key disadvantages for people of colour is that Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, who buy about half of all mortgages in America, use algorithms based on data from the 1990s. The criteria used to determine good credit from that period favours White people.

This algorithm was developed from data from the 1990s and is more than 15 years old. It’s widely considered detrimental to people of color because it rewards traditional credit, to which White Americans have more access. It doesn’t consider, among other things, on-time payments for rent, utilities, and cellphone bills—but will lower people’s scores if they get behind on them and are sent to debt collectors. Unlike more recent models, it penalizes people for past medical debt even if it’s since been paid.

“This is how structural racism works,” said Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. “This is how racism gets embedded into institutions and policies and practices with absolutely no animus at all.”

This is yet another example of our overreliance on algorithms trained on biased or irrelevant data and not having human oversight to verify that the decisions make sense. What is worse is that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are displaying no urgency in upgrading their algorithms even after being alerted to this fact. Meanwhile, people of colour continue to be wrongly denied loans even when a human reviewer can see that they should be approved based on their financial profiles.

Other interesting news from around the web

👣 We trained AI to recognise footprints, but it won’t replace forensic experts yet [Matthew Robert Bennett and Marcin Budka, The Conversation]

Expert witnesses are critical to investigations. But they are human and are susceptible to mistakes. Bennett and Budka investigated the potential for AI to study evidence in forensic science and found that AI performed better than general forensic scientists in assessing footprints but not better than specific footprint experts.

In one of our experiments, an occasional user was given 100 randomly selected shoe prints to analyse. Across the trial, which we ran several times, the casual user got it right between 22% and 83% of the time. In comparison the AI was between 60% and 91% successful. Footwear experts, however, are right nearly 100% of the time. 

One reason why our second neural network was not perfect and didn’t outperform real experts is that shoes vary with wear, making the task more complex. Buy a new pair of shoes and the tread is sharp and clear but after a month or two it becomes less clear. But while the AI couldn’t replace the expert trained to spot these things it did outperform occasional users, suggesting it could help free up time for the expert to focus on more difficult cases.

🏦 Banks warned that crypto could replace the dollar within five years [Victor Tangermann, Futurism]

According to a recent survey of finance industry executives by consulting giant Deloitte, digital assets will likely replace fiat currencies in five to ten years — and banks should take notice.

“Deloitte’s 2021 Global Blockchain Survey affirms that banks should embrace their inevitable digital future,” the report reads. “In a seismic shift, financial leaders increasingly see digital assets as the future.”

Some 76 percent of respondents said they believe “digital assets will serve as a strong alternative to, or outright replacement for, fiat currencies in the next 5–10 years.”

🥵 Can this sun-reflecting fabric help fight climate change [Jess Craig, WIRED]

Fashion in the age of global warming and climate change.

In 2020, a graduate student from Zhejiang University in China donned a seemingly plain white vest and sat in the direct sunlight for one hour. A few feet away, researchers monitored his body temperature with infrared cameras and sensors on his skin. Half of the vest was made from ordinary cotton; the other of metafabric, a new, experimental textile made of synthetic fibers and nanoparticles that reflect light and heat. After an hour in the sun, the half of the student covered in the metafabric was nearly 5 degrees Celsius cooler than the side covered by the cotton vest, researchers reported earlier this month in Science.

Quote of the week

“We are consuming huge amounts of power to cool our environment down. If we can have this kind of fabric made into clothes and sell those clothes to people, then we can save a lot of energy.”

—Yaoguang Ma, Professor of optical science and engineering, Zhejiang University, from the article “Can this sun-reflecting fabric help fight climate change”. [WIRED]

I wish you a brilliant day ahead :)