The Strange World of Robot Jockeys


Updated: Mar 22, 2023 10:55 pm

Futurologists, i.e. people like Isaac Asimov and H.G. Wells, people who try to predict the future either through their own fiction or statements to the media, are often wrong. Asimov predicted that we’d be on the Moon “in force” mining rocks and living off microwave power by 2019, something that has only been realized so far in the 1993 video game SimCity. However, his predictions about the ubiquitousness of computers have at least come true. 

The Next Upheaval

Modern futurologists rarely fare much better, largely due to the fact that science often plateaus and major discoveries become rarer. Try to imagine the next upheaval in mobile phones, for example. We haven’t had one of those since the first iPhone was released in 2007. Of course, that doesn’t stop people from trying to guess what comes next, as evidenced by the remarks of Dr. Ian Pearson.

Dr. Pearson has envisaged a world in which some performers and officials in sports are replaced by robots sometime between 2025 and 2030. Speaking in 2018, the full-time futurologists’ comments may seem a little ridiculous some five years on, as there haven’t been many developments in this area at all. Soccer players are all still flesh and blood and robot sports, while part of legitimate research, lean on the silly side of things.

There’s always an exception, though. In Qatar, a bit of legislation in the mid-2000s banned human jockeys in camel racing. Now, all riders in the sport are robots. The bad news is that these jockeys are glorified cardboard boxes. They do have “smart” features like GPS and sensors to monitor the camel’s health but they don’t actually do anything autonomously. The jockey has a speaker that relays commands from a trainer’s radio.

The Grand National

Compare all this to something like the Grand National at Aintree. Whilst the jockeys may not get the acclaim that the horses do, almost every iconic image from the event features a jockey being congratulated for having crossed the line in first place. When looking at Grand National betting, there’s no doubt that favourites Corach Rambler (6/1) and Noble Yeats (8/1) will be ridden by some of the biggest names in the sport. There won’t be a robot in sight.

So, what’s gone wrong? Dr. Pearson is quite a respected futurologist who is listed on Kaspersky’s Earth 250 website but there’s a problem. Horse racing may simply not be interested in robot jockeys, despite the possibilities. A prototype of a non-human rider was unveiled as a publicity stunt at the Cheltenham Festival in 2018 – and that was apparently the end of that particular episode in horse racing. 

Outside of mind sports like chess, there’s something vaguely ludicrous about robot athletes, which could diminish the appeal of a serious competition like the Grand National, even as it elevates Qatar’s camel racing to something more than a rural, tribal activity. Until the world develops a fully autonomous robot, the idea of putting a remote control person on the back of a thoroughbred is always going to be unpopular.

Until then, Asimov’s moon base is probably the more likely thing to happen before 2030.


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