AKA: An investigation we sort of wish we hadn’t started…
Let’s face it, Christmas has changed and the internet is partially to blame. Who wants to go buying Christmas cards when you can send an e-card instead, or select a naff design from Groovy FlyingRat.com and get them to send the card out for you without you even having to write your own name beneath the greeting? And why spend long hours hunting for Christmas presents when you can go online and select next day delivery? And what’s the big deal about getting together with all your loved ones on Christmas Day and catching up on everybody’s news when you already know everything they’ve done via Facebook or Twitter, you might even Skype with Grandma once a week, and you’re more interested in the Facebook lives of friends you’ve never really met anyway (which means you’ll probably have your nose in your phone all through Christmas Day, posting photos of your presents with relevant emojis: “Look what Santa got me!” 🙂 “Socks again???!!” 🙁 “Hmmm… Christmas dinner! #brusselsproutssuck”)
But Christmas is really for the kids isn’t it? Well, according to a 2015 survey by the VPN Hide My Ass, one in eight American children have their belief in Santa Claus ruined while they’re online. Last year, HMA even released a plug-in called “Keep Believing in Santa” that was designed to monitor web activity and then plant various photos of Santa Claus across any content that might question Santa’s existence. For anyone who’s interested (although let’s face it, your child has probably already rumbled the truth thanks to that John Lewis ad showing a father building a trampoline and then pretending Santa delivered it) it looks like the plug-in’s still available here: https://www.hidemyass.com/keep-believing-in-santa?__c=1
Although it’s not just the internet Santa has to worry about. What about AI bots like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana or Ok, Google? With their complex voice recognition capabilities, which are a mixture of Acoustic and Language Modelling and probability analysis (i.e. breaking down the waveform of our speech and then using the bot’s internal dictionary to predict the correct response to our question), they’re not programmed for nuance or nostalgia. They’re only designed to give us the cold hard facts.
So we thought we’d try an experiment: when we asked Alexa “Does Santa exist?”, she surprised us by replying “I don’t know him personally, but I’ve heard many good things about Father Christmas. If I ever meet him, I’ll tell you” – which was a lot more diplomatic than we were expecting. Well done, Amazon. Your boffins already thought this dilemma through and prepared well in advance.
Siri, however, was a bit less PC. To the question “Does Santa exist?”, Siri caustically replied “Well, those cookies won’t eat themselves” – which is either an AI’s attempt at satire or maybe Siri was just having a very bad day. So we asked Siri if he believed in Santa Claus. Siri remained noncommittal, only warning us “Careful, you don’t want to end up on the Naughty list.” Hmm – 4/10 Siri, but great work when it comes to dodging the question.
The good news is that things did improve when we got to Cortana (for a brief moment anyway). “Do you believe in Santa Claus?” we asked her. “I do,” she said, “I’ll be keeping an eye out for him come December.” “But does Santa Claus exist?” we asked, thinking it was time to pin her down to details. “Of course. Who else delivers all the presents?” Cortana replied, before adding “How about you?”
That threw us a bit. “What do you mean, Cortana?” we asked, “Are you asking do we deliver all the presents or do we exist?”
“Yes,” said Cortana.
“Okay, just to clarify. You believe in Santa Claus but you’re asking us if we exist?” we asked her.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t understand the question,” Cortana answered, obviously realising that she’d given too much away and it was time to play dumb for a while.
And that’s where we left it, more certain about Santa Claus’s reality than our own. It’s not an experiment we’d recommend, especially if you don’t want to spend Christmas with a massive existential headache, wondering if that great present you’ve just received is really just an illusion in the Matrix.
So what’s the solution? Well, we think the answer’s simple – enjoy the spirit of Christmas, put your tech away, back off from the internet, and enjoy the season in the company of the people you love most of all (the real ones, not KillBill17 and I’mATroll52 who are probably just catfishes anyway).
Happy Christmas, everybody! See you in the New Year!