Robot Jockeys On The Horizon

In England, and sometimes in America, horse racing is referred to as the sport of kings. Some Gulf nations, too, have their royal sport camel racing.

Unfortunately - just as concerns have been raised in recent years about the widespread incidence of anorexia and bulimia among champion jockeys - human rights groups have criticized the widespread use of child labor in camel races. After all, though there's nothing inherently wrong with a line of four-legged animals racing each other to the finish, someone has to train and race those animals - someone light. In countries with already-minimal human rights standards, sometimes those people aren't given much of a choice.

From ancient times, in fact, the most common age for a camel rider was four - and these four-year-old boys were often kidnap victims sold to camel owners, in whose hands they were subject to starvation, beatings, and sexual abuse. The continuing need for them led to an active slave trade. Because of these depredations, international protest mounted against the organizers of camel races in recent decades. Human rights groups claimed (according to one USA Today story) that at least 40,000 of these boy jockeys were victims of kidnapping or human trade. Legislative efforts to provide better oversight failed to eliminate child abuse from the sport.

So such Gulf states as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates found themselves under enormous pressure to abandon what was, in effect, a sport as ingrained in their culture as Thoroughbred horse racing is in the lives of many Americans and Europeans. Their solution
In Qatar, their solution is robots.

Ruling sheiks in that country charged a Swiss developer, Alexandre Colot (of robotics giant K-Team), with developing a prototype for a robot camel rider - at a reported cost of $1 million. The prototype, named Kamel, made his debut in April 2005, where during a practice run, wearing a purple jersey, he drove his highly trained racing camel at speeds of up to twenty-five miles per hour.

Kamel's relative competence as a camel driver allowed Qatar to institute a ban on all use of child jockeys in 2005, projecting that robotic jockeys would be ready to take over the country's racing circuit by 2007. That was in spite of early hurdles, including camels' reported fear of their new robot drivers and the turbulent conditions of racing. Developers overcame the first problem by adding humanlike elements to Kamel's design - racing clothes, traditional perfumes, etc. (Initially they had mannequin-like faces, but these were removed by order of the country's prime minister, who thought they may violate an ancient Islamic prohibition against making representations of the human form.) The robots are remote controlled (the operators keep up with their man via SUV), and they give their remote drivers up-to-the-second data about the camel's speed and heart rate. The remotes have a range of half a mile.

With the United Arab Emirates facing continued scrutiny over the use of child jockeys, pressure may continue to mount for the country to follow Qatar's lead, despite the expense of developing the jockeybots. As AP reporter Eric Talmadge writes, an early-2006 lawsuit - filed in Miami, where many of the UAE's leading sheiks maintain horses - named rulers of the United Arab Emirates as defendants against the charge of enslaving tens of thousands of boys during three decades and forcing them to work as camel jockeys. The lawsuit claims the boys were taken largely from Bangladesh and Pakistan, were held at desert camps in the UAE and other Persian Gulf nations, and forced to work. It also contends some boys were sexually abused, given limited food and sleep and injected with hormones to prevent their growth. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

But - as Thoroughbred racing fans who read the world-news page must by now be asking themselves - what about US and European horse racing After all, being a jockey is a terrible physical strain, as many previously-unaware readers learned a few years ago, when Laura Hillenbrand's unlikely bestseller Seabiscuit introduced thousands to the ancient art of horse racing - as well as its unsavory side. Hillenbrand's book will tell you all you'd ever want to know about the dietary depredations self-inflicted by jockeys - the anorexia and bulimia, the 900-calorie-per-day diets, the constant physical pain, mental fatigue and irritability brought on by slow starvation; the courting of diarrhea and intentional ingestion of tapeworms.

But there's a key difference - jockeys in Europe and America choose these hardships. They respond to the glory and heritage of horse racing - or the combination of talent with the possibility of great winnings. Like boxers and college wrestlers, or computer programmers (remember those tech-boom-era 26-hour workdays we used to read about) and filmmakers (George Lucas suffered stabbing chest pains and debilitating stress during the making of the original Star Wars), even writers (novelist John Gardner once did a 20-hour writing stint, while in the hospital recovering from colon cancer), jockeys leave behind convenience, even (for temporary periods) health, in their pursuit of excellence. Certainly such suffering must be self-chosen, uncoerced - but in the absence of external force, we recognize such behavior as dedication, hard work, sacrifice. It's symbolic of some of the finest human qualities. Jockeys as well as racing fans instinctively realize this.

Combine that with the fact that Qatar's robojockeys don't yet seem to have achieved quite the nuanced control over their mounts that human jockeys can attain, and it's unsurprising that there's been no outcry thus far for American robot jockeys. Still, the possibilities are intriguing. At least the post-race interviews would be fun to watch That question does not compute, Keith.