Robot jockeys explained

A while ago, I posted on a story about robot camel jockeys in Qatar. At the time, I wasn’t sure whether it was a totally legit story. Did someone just put some mannequins on camels and have a little fun? Could this really be the next wave of cybernetic design?
Robot camel jockeys
Thanks to a great article in Wired, I now know that, as I’ve often said, the truth is stupider than fiction:

Robot camel jockeys. That’s about half of what you need to know. Robots, designed in Switzerland, riding camels in the Arabian desert. Camel jockey robots, about 2 feet high, with a right hand to bear the whip and a left hand to pull the reins. Thirty-five pounds of aluminum and plastic, a 400-MHz processor running Linux and communicating at 2.4 GHz; GPS-enabled, heart rate-monitoring (the camel’s heart, that is) robots. Mounted on tall, gangly blond animals, bouncing along in the sandy wastelands outside Doha, Qatar, in the 112-degree heat, with dozens of follow-cars behind them. I have seen them with my own eyes. And the other half of the story: Every robot camel jockey bopping along on its improbable mount means one Sudanese boy freed from slavery and sent home.

It’s July in Qatar, one of the hottest months in one of the hottest places in the world, and in an air-conditioned double-wide that sits baking in the sun, there are two experiments going on. One to see if the robots themselves will work, and one, less explicit, to measure the reach and touch of technology. It’s a moment created by rampantly colliding contexts: Western R&D, international NGO pressures, Arabian traditions, petroleum wealth, and benevolent despotism. If it works, the result will be both simple and powerful (one small step for robotics, one giant leap for social progress): The standard modernist gambit of taking a crappy job and making it more bearable through mechanization will be transformed into a 21st-century policy of taking appalling and involuntary servitude and eliminating it through high tech. Everybody will win a little. The children will be set free, the owners will get to keep their pastime, the US State Department will consider it a good start, and the camels will continue to do their camel thing.

But however modern the Qataris may be, some traditions linger. For thousands of years, camel racing has been the sport of kings throughout the Arab peninsula – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and United Arab Emirates. A fast camel can cost several hundred thousand dollars, and an owner may house and feed scores of them. The closest American equivalent is not Thoroughbred racing but polo. There is no gambling, though there are various prizes for the winners, and the sport is not the people’s choice (soccer is). There are few live spectators and no television cameras, just a narrow sandy track about 10 miles long, looping through the desert outside Doha, where every year from October to April, wealthy men gather to run camels against one another.

It is not, for all that, an entirely benign diversion. A camel will not run without someone riding it and egging it on. The lighter the jockey, the faster the camel. For as long as anyone can remember, the solution was to use child jockeys – not adolescents, but little boys as young as 4, hustled in from poorer countries like Sudan and kept in hovels in the desert where they did nothing but ride camels. They were denied even rudimentary schooling, they were starved to keep their weight down, and their injuries were often left untreated. In Qatar there were a few hundred such children; in neighboring UAE, which used Pakistani and Bangladeshi boys as well as Sudanese, there were as many as 3,000. Trainers would choose whoever was handy and ready, stick him up on a saddle behind the camel’s hump, and when the race started, bark orders through walkie-talkies the boys wore strapped to their chests.

By the end of 2003, the practice had become a public relations disaster of exactly the sort that Qatar, gazing westward, wanted very much to avoid. A Pakistani human rights activist named Ansar Burney began a campaign against the use of child jockeys. Other NGOs protested and the UN got involved, as did the US State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. In June, the State Department demoted Qatar to Tier 3 status, indicating that the country was, in effect, engaging in slavery, and leaving it open to possible economic sanctions.

Wired 13.11: Robots of Arabia

I strongly urge you to click through and read the rest of Jim Lewis’s excellent article. It goes beyond the obvious (robots riding camels seems, to Western eyes, faintly comedic) and really hits at some serious questions about technology and human rights.

After reading this, I decided to scrap a piece I was writing for the Business Press about Missouri riverboats and instead write about the implication of robots and new technology for casino and hospitality workers and patrons.

Just to be fun, here’s a shot of camel and robot in mid-stride:
Robot camel jockeys

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