Can a Robot Replace Santa Claus?
Unitarian Universalist Meeting House
Does anybody remember what a pinspotter is? It’s a person who works in a bowling alley, whose job is to set up the bowling pins between the attempts each bowler makes to knock them down. When I was a child most bowling alleys in the city had machines that did this work, but in the summer time we went to a bowling alley at the beach that didn’t have machines and still hired teenagers to do this work.
We have come a long way in making machines to do the work that people used to do. Soon it is predicted that cars and trucks will be so smart they will be able to drive themselves, and then people who drive for a living – such as taxi drivers, bus drivers, truck drivers – will be out of work.
People used to ask, what will machines be able to do next? Now we ask, what won’t they do next? They can already play chess against the best chess players in the world, and beat them. A bigger challenge was the Japanese game Go, which relies on intuitions and hunches more than chess. But now a computer has been built which can beat the world champion in Go.
Computers and robots can do amazing things. Ten years ago, scientists thought they’d never be able to teach a machine how to recognize people. Most little children learn how to recognize people in the first couple of years of life, and they don’t have to study hard, they just know how to do it. It took years of experimenting with computer code but they finally figured out how to make a machine recognize people.
Now if I tag a picture I have posted on Facebook and type in my daughter’s name, Facebook can search through all the other pictures on my account and find all the ones with my daughter in them. Even though she has changed her hair color over the years.
Come to think of it, it’ll be funny to see whether Facebook recognizes me now that I’ve shaved off my beard.
But now it’s Christmastime, and the question I want to ask is, can a robot replace Santa Claus? Will we ever have a machine which can deliver presents to all the children in the world in one night? And I’m not talking abut Amazon. Amazon is a big company and they have storehouses all over the world, and they take orders online and send out presents by mail and by express services like UPS and FedEx. When you see those delivery trucks trundling down your street it might be a package for you that someone bought through Amazon. And that’s exciting. But not as exciting as having little reindeer land on your roof.
To help us think about this pressing question, you can see that I’ve built a model of robot Santa sailing through the air in a sleigh, reindeer and a bag of toys. At least, that’s what I imagine a robot Santa would look like.
So let us move to the urgent question of the hour: do we have, or are we about to invent, machines that will do all the work of Santa Claus? Will a robot soon be reading letters from little boys and girls and delivering presents?
Now as usual, I have done massive research on this question, consulting Google and Wikipedia and all the usual sources of authority. I knew that we would have the children in the congregation for this sermon, and I knew they would take a keen interest in this topic, because Christmas is only nine days away. Yikes.
Anyway, in doing this research, I came across a website called Santabot.com. That website allows you to have a conversation with something or someone who is claiming to be Santa. It may be the real Satna, it may be a robot pretending to be Santa, it may be Santa pretending to be a robot, I don’t know. But you can ask it questions and it will give you answers, sort of like Siri on my iPhone.
That website also had a series of Christmas jokes which were pretty awful, so awful that I thought they might actually help keep some very smart kids from getting bored during the service. So I am giving out a page of them to anyone claiming to be a kid and we’ll have a few joke breaks in the sermon.
OK, to the main question: can a robot do the work of Santa Claus? I say no, for three reasons.
The first reason is that it’s hard for a robot to get in a sleigh. Most robots don’t have legs, they have wheels, so you would need a lift or a ramp to get one into a sleigh. The ones that do have legs have problems getting over barriers. And we know this from watching our friends and loved ones who use wheelchairs and walkers as they try to cross streets, get into buildings and deal with stairs.
Once a robot Santa got in the sleigh, staying in the sleigh would be very dicey as it twisted and turned through the air. Of course, you could put in seat belts, but still I don’t think a robot would be able to stay in as well as a person or a jolly old elf.
Now once Santa is in the sleigh, he could use one part of artificial intelligence, the GPS or map software. This would tell him how to get to every house he had to get to. It would also remind him which kids live in which house, and what each kid wants for Christmas. I never have understood how Santa does that anyway.
Incidentally, What do snowmen eat for breakfast?
A. Frosted Flakes.
The second reason Santa won’t be replaced by a robot is that I can’t imagine a robot climbing into the chimney or getting down it. Of course, I’ve never understood how the real Santa does that either. And I’ve never understood how the real Santa can hold on to a sack of presents while climbing down the chimney. And how he climbs back up the chimney when he’s done.
And a third reason, how about the milk and cookies which moms and dads leave out for Santa? Robots don’t eat milk and cookies, they eat electric power. Is a robot Santa just going to plug in and charge his batteries in each house he visits? How is he going to get all those presents delivered in one night? Yikes!
But speaking of reindeer, if a reindeer lost its tail, where could he get a new one?
A. At a retail store.
Now we’ve got three reasons why a robot can’t replace Santa: getting the robot in the sleigh, getting the robot down and up the chimney, dealing with the milk and cookies when robots don’t eat them. But they are making better robots all the time. I think there’s deeper reasons why we won’t be seeing Santa replaced by a robot.
But before I get to that, can anyone tell me what the grape said to the peanut butter?
A. "'Tis the season to be jelly".
The deeper reason has to do with those lists of who’s naughty and who’s nice. Which kids have behaved themselves this year and which kids have been little terrors.
Now I know we like to see the good in people, and we try to be nice all the time. But sometimes we just get sad or depressed or angry and do something we shouldn’t. Let’s face it. Naughty happens from time to time no matter how we try to stay nice.
The question is, if there’s someone keeping a list, would you rather it be Santa or a great big computer? Santa works closely with your mom and dad – I don’t know just how, but I feel that the information on Santa’s list is pretty close to the information that would be on your mom or dad’s list.
But that’s what we call very private and personal information. We wouldn’t want to just spread it out all over the internet. Some people might take advantage of us or try to do us harm, to make us feel bad. So I’d like to hope that Santa doesn’t keep his naughty and nice list anywhere that people can hack into.
Here’s a good question for Chatham: What do you get when you cross a snowman with a shark?
A. Frost bite.
Over the years Santa Claus has come to represent the spirit of Christmas. He’s not the only symbol of the Christmas spirit. There is a famous story called “A Christmas Carol” written by Charles Dickens about the spirits of Christmas past, Christmas present and Christmas yet to come. These appear in dreams to the main character in the story, Ebenezer Scrooge. Ebenezer is a miser, he loved money more than he loves any person. Early in the story, his nephew tries to tell him about the Christmas spirit. He says
"I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round ... as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"
It takes Ebenezer Scrooge the rest of the story and the vision of the three Christmas spirits to come around to his nephew’s view of Christmas.
By the way, What do you call an old snowman?
What is important about Santa Claus is that he has that Christmas spirit, he puts in those long hours just to bring joy to millions of little children throughout the world.
And that’s pretty much the main point of Santa Claus. But here’s the problem: robots don’t have spirits. Or at least I don’t think they do. I have looked through all the theological websites on the Internet and Googled it on my smartphone and nobody can tell me for sure whether robots have spirits.
Now, some you may say, yeah, so what? How do we know that anybody has a spirit? You can’t see them or touch them or hear them. What is a spirit anyway? How do I know that I have one?
That’s a very good question, so while I think about it, I’ll ask another: What goes "oh, oh, oh"?
A. Santa walking backwards.
What is a spirit anyway? It’s close to a heart, I think. Remember in the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy has three friends who join her on her trip to the magic city of Oz: the scarecrow, who wishes he had a brain, the tin man, who wishes he had a heart, and the lion, who wishes he had courage. They go through a lot of adventures together, and they finally meet the wizard. Of course, the fiery giant head that scares them so turns out to be nothing but a little old man behind a curtain. But he gives each of Dorothy’s companions what they have been seeking by showing them that they have had it all along. To the scarecrow he gives a diploma showing that the scarecrow really has a brain. To the tin man, he gives a heart he can wear on his chest, but all along he has been able to cry when his heart gets broken. To the lion he gives a citation for courage.
Maybe that’s the way it works. Maybe robots are like the tin man; maybe they have hearts but don’t really know it.
I don’t know what the answers are. I just raise the questions. If a robot doesn’t have a heart, I don’t see how it can replace Santa Claus, who is all heart.
So I leave you with maybe more questions than answers. Oh wait, there’s one more question you can help me answer: What do you sing at a snowman's birthday party?
A. Freeze a jolly good fellow.
Bless your hearts and have a Merry Christmas.
Reading: Yes Virginia There is a Santa Claus The New York Sun Sept. 21, 1897
We take pleasure in answering thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun:
I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, "If you see it in The Sun, it's so." Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
115 West Ninety Fifth Street
Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.
We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
You tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
No Santa Claus! Thank God! He lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.