Jeffers’ ploy marked the first reported instance of robo-doping: using performance-enhancing algorithms to gain a competitive advantage in esports competition. Esports is a fast-growing field, and that has only accelerated in the midst of Covid-19. Zwift is one of many hybrid digital-physical platforms for other sports like rowing and running. Even longtime race promoter [Ironman is going digital](https://www.ironmanvirtualclub.com/: It launched a virtual race platform, where athletes earn points for their achievements and can compete in live races. But soon, sophisticated algorithmic enhancements in these competitions will make Lance Armstrong’s dalliances with blood transfusions and hormones look blunt, rudimentary, naive.
Doping in sports is a well-known issue—every professional league has clear regulations and punishments when the rules are broken. But in digital competitions, there’s no guideline or rule against the use of simulation programs to enhance performance. While esports associations ban certain substances, there is no international standard for robo-doping. It’s a murky area today, and that portends thorny problems on the horizon.
The factors that conspired to enable robo-doping that March day—fast internet speeds, cloud-based platforms, connected devices, algorithms, automation systems, bots—also power our day-to-day lives. Outside of esports, we’ve already seen how easily algorithms can be manipulated. In order to steer people away from their neighborhoods, people reported fake traffic accidents on Waze. At Reagan National Airport near Washington, DC, Uber and Lyft drivers have simultaneously gone offline for a few minutes to trick the platforms into thinking no drivers were available, resulting in surge pricing. Last year, a deepfake video of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, saying “Whoever controls the data controls the future” went viral on the night of Congressional hearings. Robo-doping is just the latest iteration of these virtual manipulations—and it’s not difficult to imagine how similar tactics might impact workplaces and schools next.
For instance, board certification for an anesthesia residency, one of the most challenging in medical school, used to require in-person simulations, but there’s now an option to complete this portion virtually. In the digital version, residents treat computer-generated patients that have all manner of ailments, then monitor and make adjustments, just as they would for a human patient. While offering this virtual option may be more efficient, it also opens up the possibility of a new kind of Jeffers-inspired cheating. If a resident had run a bot to simulate the required number of practice sessions, it’s unlikely you’d want to end up as their first real-world patient.
Or maybe the company you work for decides to make our Covid-era work-from-home policy permanent. In exchange for being able to work anywhere, employees have agreed to be continually monitored: A platform tracks how often you use various apps and cloud-based processes, when you talk to other team members, and how quickly you’re able to complete tasks. Your performance plan is tied to these metrics.
You feel like you’re making positive contributions to your team, but one coworker seems to somehow outperform and outpace everyone. The joke on Slack is that this person must have a clone, because their constantly online, always working, and their metrics are amazing. But that’s not out of the question—your colleague may actually have a clone in the form of bots that log in and out of the apps and tools being monitored.
Remember when a handful of wealthy parents were discovered gaming the admissions system to get their kids into college? Some bought fake IDs and hired smart twentysomethings to sit for entrance exams. But in the not-so-distant future, a similar scheme might involve using a simulation program that takes millions of PSAT exams online until it learns patterns and delivers a set of questions with a statistically relevant probability of appearing on the real exam—then memorizing the answers in advance.
Simulation programs can be wonderful tools for training employees, enhancing our productivity, and freeing us from monotonous, repetitive tasks. But they’re also vulnerable to manipulation. And while threats to the integrity of esports are concerning, the possibility of robo-doping spilling outside of sports, where the people we may someday depend on decided to game the system rather than put in the work, is terrifying. Many professions increasingly rely on simulation programs because they’re efficient, cheap, and more objective. We ought to think about downstream risk now, while we still have a chance to intervene. It’s one thing to robo-dope in a nascent esports competition—it’s quite another to simulate practice hours ahead of surgery, or a murder trial, or a long flight in a cockpit full of buttons.
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