AI is really, really bad at making Christmas carols

AI struggles to understand the context of Christmas carols.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is getting good at a lot of things. From beating professional gamers in “Starcraft II” to writing ad copy that performs better than human-written phrases, AI is undoubtedly the technology of the future. However, it appears that researchers have found its weakness—writing Christmas carols.

One AI’s festive ineptitude ranges from comical to frightening as it tries to put together a rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Rudolph, King of All the Earth

Janelle Shane is a research scientist who specializes in training AI. She has previously worked on projects that teach AI systems to create new superhero names, Valentine’s Day phrases, and “Dungeons and Dragons” creatures.

However, her Christmas carol AI might be the most entertaining of them all. She used OpenAI’s extremely powerful GPT-2 model as the basis for her experiment. That framework is trained with more than 40GB of text from the Internet to understand just about any words thrown at it. Yet, the results of her asking it for the next line of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” show that context is far more difficult for AI to master.

One of several renditions went like this:

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, with its red belly
The All-gracious King of all the earth,
Had a baby at Christmas time, On Christmas Day,
A true and holy Deity, Went down to earth,
With human flesh for sacrifice…”

In response, Shane said, “I can’t tell whether it has misunderstood what Christmas carols are all about, or understood some of them only too well.”

Going by those results, the answer is a little bit of both.

Crossed Wires

So, what exactly went wrong? Essentially, it comes down to the fact that AI isn’t that good separating the festive Santa and Rudolph side of Christmas from the religious side with Jesus and mangers. Of course, plenty of people have that same struggle, so the AI can’t be blamed too much.

As for that line about sacrificing human flesh, Shane was quick to reassure everyone that she isn’t training the next Terminator. She says that the word flesh appears in several carols (especially “Good King Wenceslas”) as do the words sacrifice and human. In the “mind” of the AI, “Human flesh for sacrifice” seems to make sense.

The AI also had a difficult time separating the commercialism of Christmas from the festivities of the holiday. It wrote an original song about buying a yacht. Once again, this is a fault that many people struggle with. Perhaps it goes to show that AI doesn’t think so differently from humans after all (a joke, obviously).

AI’s inability to understand Christmas carols goes to show that the technology is still young. Although its skills may seem frightening, AI is only good at doing certain things. Understanding the nuances of holiday music isn’t one of them.

It is this divide that makes humans both necessary and important even as AI is emerging as a world-changing technology. If you’re worried about having your job stolen by robots, perhaps consider a career as a carol writer. Or, simply enjoy the holidays and this festive AI mishap and know that AI is here to help, not hurt.



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