by Trey Nosrac
As I pulled my Prius into the parking lot of the private airport, he held up his index finger to flag me down. My passenger wore faded Levis and a yellow t-shirt under a gray sports jacket. With a backpack slung over one shoulder, he looked fit, like a long-distance runner, a veteran runner, because his peachfuzz of brown hair had a dusting of grey.
A little dance takes place each time a new fare slides into the back seat. Do we talk or not talk? If the rider is not busy talking or texting, I say, “How’s it going?” and let them take it from there.
This individual picked up the conversation ball and ran.
“I’m on my way to visit my mom, she lives near Amish country. I’m spending two weeks away from computer screens, sort of a sabbatical. I know you won’t find a passenger back in that area. Don’t worry, I’ll pay double, half in cash.”
“Sweet, where are you from?”
“Silicon Valley in Cupertino, California.”
“Nerdland, what kind of work?”
“Impressive, a Commander in the nerd army.”
“Let’s say I’m a warrior in the information revolution.”
I gave him a salute, began to drive and asked, “Why don’t you just teleport to mom’s house?”
He chuckled, “Taking the scenic route this time. My mom lives on a farm.”
“Dude, it’s 39 miles, why not rent a car?”
“My license expired long ago, never renewed it.”
“No car in America, that’s very radical.”
“Not where I live.”
“So what does the valley crowd think about self-driving cars. What’s the outlook, the time frame?”
“Robotic cars are old school. In three weeks California law is changing that will allow them on the road without a driver behind the wheel. Our work is about a decade down the road.”
My passenger was confident, not cocky; any fool could sense he was smart. I decided to shift the conversation to familiar terrain. I was deciding on how the president combs his hair or harness racing.
He still wanted to talk shop. “Integrating artificial intelligence multi-data systems and robotics is the next wave for tech engineers.”
“My second choice after LYFT driver.”
It was game time.
I asked, “Did you ever hear of a sport called harness racing?”
“Yeah, I grew up on the farm. We always went to the county fair, even had an uncle who was involved. I always liked it. The horses are awesome, all that clomping and snorting when they fly past was so cool. I especially like trotters.”
I liked this fellow. He was smart, rich, could take a joke, and liked trotters – we could start a bromance.
I asked, “You go to the track, or bet on the races?”
“Do ever think about the sport, you know, like the future?”
He surprised me again. “Yeah, I have.”
“Mixed bag, I see big opportunities in an open Internet gambling world, which will happen. If horse racing gets a share of that, it’s a fabulous market. But I see problems.”
“Let me guess, the pace of play, the high takeout or cheating?”
“Nope, none of them are assets, but I worry about something you may have never considered.”
“Why do people gamble on horses?”
“To win money.”
I watched him nod in my rear-view mirror, then say, “Of course, without gambling money you have dressage.”
“The ones I bet on should stick to dressage.”
Yoda-like, he continued, “The deeper question is why certain people gamble on horses. Horse racing gamblers are usually men. Men who believe they are smart. It’s an ego thing. Horse racing gambling depends on people who believe they are superior at predicting outcomes of horse races and are willing to risk money to prove it.”
“I prove nothing to nobody.”
“The money is important, but not as important as you might believe. The flush of superiority from a win is a rush. People who gamble on horses are a shrinking demographic. When the grandstands were full and the gambling venues restricted to the tracks, there was stupid money. Today there may or may not be as many stupid people, but there is not much stupid money in the pari-mutuel pools. In the future, this will be a growing problem for horse gamblers.”
“Not a rosy picture.”
“The problem gets compounded. These gamblers are not as smart as a computer. Data fed into a computer makes the ‘smartness’ of traditional handicappers shrink. My job revolves around artificial intelligence, human interaction, psychology and computers. Everyone knows, and has known for a long time, that given correct data, humans lose.”
It was my turn to nod. “Sort of like what’s going on in baseball this winter, with the free agent freeze. Every team has the same data, mountains of data. There is no daylight for supposed gurus who play hunches. The old scout sitting in the stands is losing his mystique, his knowledge is not as important.”
“Exactly. Old patterns are established for aging gamblers, they are what they are and will not change. New players are a different breed. They won’t find joy in physically handicapping because they will only be deluding themselves if they think they are smarter than artificial intelligence analysis. This will take away a lot of the fun and the charm that is derived from outsmarting your buddy. The problem is that if you give the same data to a human or a machine, the machine is the better bet. The only way humans win is if the information is hidden or deception is involved.”
He had a lot more to say on racing, unusual slants. Mostly I listened until we got to his boyhood house. The farm looked like a television commercial, clean and white with his mom on the porch waving.
I sighed and said, “Just when I was about to be your best friend, you turn into Darth Vader and tell me that my favorite sport and my job are about to get killed by robots and artificial intelligence. Thanks a lot. Got any good news, any good ideas?”
“Yes, give me your email address.”
He pecked on his phone. I heard my inbox ping.
He leaned into the open passenger door window and said, “Consider the drawing I just sent. See if you get any ideas for the future of horseracing in the information revolution.”
I opened his email when I got home.
As you look at this sketch, erase everything you know about harness horse racing, everything. Start with the premise that artificial intelligence will predict horse performance with far more accuracy than humans will. This is a prompt for an idea for the start of a race. Do not waste your time fighting against AI. Create a new race that will make money, unlimited money. Be fearless. Imagine you are in Nerdland with new vision. Talk on the way back to the airport. TS.