A light at the end of the doping tunnel?

Artificial intelligence could remove fallible people from the process.

by Trey Nosrac

Poor Lottie, I can imagine what she tells her husband, Richard, the oracle of Olive Grove Lane, before the annual summer block party, “Now don’t drink too much, do a little listening, talk to the neighbors, and don’t pontificate, it’s embarrassing.”

Lottie’s etiquette rules last until her husband crosses his tidy tree lined lawn. This year, Richard is fashionably clad in a blue bowling shirt straining against his prodigious belly and lime green shorts that cover his pasty knees. Most of the residents of Olive Grove find Richard obnoxious but strangely loveable. He will always pull on his latest baseball cap over his bald head and pitch in to help folks unclog a toilet, shovel a sidewalk or fix a missing roof tile. He genuinely seems to enjoy being the go-to neighborhood guy.

Richard does know a lot, but he also lets you know that he knows a lot. He built a successful scrap yard business, but his son Richie runs the day-to-day operations. We are a neighborly street, except for the political feud Richard wages with Mike Bennet and Reilly Gainsboro, an endless battle that worsens yearly. Like mating cobras, the parties give each other a wide berth. During election seasons, they have an unfriendly competition to see who can place the most political yard signs per cubic square foot of lawn.

Richard was in typical form as he greeted me with a shoulder punch, “Well, neighbor, the Kentucky Derby horses were dropping dead like a Civil War cavalry charge. If this doesn’t send you to the exit door, you’re an idiot.”

“I don’t believe any horses died during the Kentucky Derby race this year.”

This technicality did not register. Richard made a face like he just bit into a piece of rotten fruit and said: “You told me at the picnic last year that a mob of horse trainers were on their way to the big house. Unless you are completely naïve, you gotta know you’re racing against drugged horses.”

Looking for cover, I said: “Those aren’t our type of horse races or our breed of horses. We have the carts.”

He rolled his eyes: “C’mon, pal.”

I replied softly, hoping he would take the hint: “It’s complicated. People in horse racing, heck, people in any sport, hate cheating. They hate the drugging and inside information. Still, people are people. You will always find honest people, cheaters, and corner-cutters. Some folks feel they need to keep pace. There are a hundred reasons and a hundred levels of cheating. Policing and prosecuting the participants isn’t a job I would want.”

Richard waved me off with his non-beer hand: “Drugs are going to kill horse racing.”

I sighed and shrugged: “Drugs have been a problem for 150 years. They may be more sophisticated, but looking for an edge in any competition is an eternal problem.”

“So, you just turn a blind eye and race on, wondering if you are getting the shaft? That would never happen to me.”

I nodded toward the hot dog table. We each grabbed a paper plate, a couple of dogs, and a little bag of potato chips then found a pair of empty side-by-side white Adirondack chairs on Lily Pennell’s driveway. The wide arms on our chairs gave us a place to rest our beers and paper plates. While loading up on food and beverages, I thought about Richard’s harsh and simplistic take on cheating in sports, so I reopened the topic.

“Richard, I’m more hopeful than ever about level playing fields in sports.”

“What? These days they got more chemists than ever.”

“Maybe, but not for long. I think doping racehorses is, and always has been, a human problem. People are always involved, making drugs, using drugs, selling drugs, testing for drugs, analyzing blood samples, surveillance, prosecution, adjudication, etc. People, fallible people, all along the line.”

Richard is smart. He figured out my thesis with just a few scant clues. He pointed his chubby index finger at me and pulled the trigger: “Artificial Intelligence? Farm out the testing and enforcement to the machines?”

“Exactly. I’ve been thinking about this for a few days. I watched a segment on the PBS NewsHour. They interviewed a top doctor who was almost giddy with the prospects of AI in medicine. The doctor said: ‘If I have a large tumor on my neck, I will see a specialist at my hospital, a top-notch hospital, and the doctor will run some tests. The specialist will probably consult with a few professionals and recommend a course of treatment.’”

For once, Richard listened. I continued my report: “The doctor said his specialist had seen my type of tumor maybe a dozen or a hundred times. He reads reports, labs and studies. Then he renders a considered opinion and treatment. Bard or Chat box medicine will look at my tumor and labs and will have access to every detail of this problem. The machine will know the optimum treatment, and the machine will get smarter and more efficient every single time. And AI works relentlessly without pay, hopefully driving insane medical bills down.”

“And you think this will take the drugs out of horse racing?”

“I do. And I believe Bard will take over testing, and
AI will design the best methods to implement an anti-doping program. At the core, we pose a problem: ‘Bard, keep horse racing safe for the animals and fair for the competitors.’”

Richard finished my spiel for me: “And AI is on the case, communicating and working with all available data, on all levels, showing how, where, and why to regulate, and then enforcing regulations that mere mortals cannot challenge. The machines at the racetrack will communicate with the labs in real time and scratch any horse with a chemical profile that does not fit the Bioscan.”

I nodded: “AI will make a testing program that humans cannot conceive; a program free from human biases. The racing industry can save a ton of money, the public confidence in horse racing will rise, and nobody will need to look the other way. Blood analysis could be in real-time and full body scans for potentially lame horses. Today, this is very expensive and time-consuming, but tomorrow the primary employee will be an ever-improving, ever-working, cost-effective AI program.”

Richard asked: “So you are going to keep playing? Waiting for the rise of the machines.”

“Neighbor, this sounds like science fiction, but that day is coming sooner than we imagine. The dream we should hold is that soon horses will race free and clean, and those who operate in the shadows will not stand a chance against artificial intelligence and the algorithms.”