Christmas is a season of wonderment and amazement - a magical time of the year. When my oldest daughter was four-years old it was also the time when she started questioning the logic of things. So, I wasn’t surprised when she looked up at me that year and asked me in her usual inquisitive/skeptical manner, “How does Santa get to every house in the world in one night?”

She has a brother two years older so the practicality of Santa Claus was fully under siege at this point and I was in full “of course Santa is real” mode protecting the dreams of her younger sister. It was the early 1990’s and I’m a physicist so my fall back was inspired by Star Wars: light-speed sleigh travel and time warps.

Fast forward three decades and the world moves faster now because everything is digital, lives on the internet where there are low barriers to entry, unlimited access, and lot’s and lot’s of data rapidly created and consumed. Instead of making your holiday list in November and paging through catalogs, you can now find that item immediately and often get it delivered the same day. This is much more convenient than driving around town, looking for the item, and hoping that the item is in stock when you get there. It’s not quite time travel, but one could call it “Santa speed.”

I expect that any day now one of my grandkids will put me on the spot again with the practical challenges of worldwide gift delivery. When that time comes, I think I will explain Santa’s superpower as AI. Heck, I’m sure they’ll already know what AI is, so let’s explore how Santa might use AI to get everything done even faster than anyone thought possible.

1. “Santa Claus is coming to town”

First of all, anyone that is coming to town today uses Google maps and everyone knows that Google maps uses AI to find the best route. And if anyone needs a “best route” – whether minimum time or maximum fuel efficiency – it’s Santa. UPS has already demonstrated how proper route planning, no left turns, simultaneously saves time and fuel. So we can start by laying a solid foundation for Santa using AI with everyday smartphone navigation.

2. “He’s making a list”

Lists are one of the first data structures used in AI and the foundational data structure of the first AI programming language: LISP. So it’s obvious that Santa would use an appropriate data structure to store, search, and analyze the logistical challenges he faces. Santa’s list sounds a lot like a collection of credit applications. He needs names, addresses, ages, family relations, recent recreational adventures, product purchases, entertainment preferences, and, most importantly, gift ideas. Sounds to me like a perfect use for SQL. Given the scope of his list and the need to access data from anywhere he travels, I am going to bet Santa uses either Azure or AWS to house his incredibly large and diverse database.

But we should also take note of the full scope of the data Santa collects – it’s much more than just personal characteristics. Santa keeps track of activity but is focused on outcomes – as well as good and bad behaviors. Outcomes are the key to building a prediction machine, which is foundational for the application of AI.

He sees you when you're sleeping. He knows when you're awake. He knows if you've been bad or good.

3. “He’s checking it twice”

Santa also uses data analytics to make sure his lists are accurate. Data engineers know that after building a report or an AI model using historical data, one must check it for accuracy and integrity. And also ask, “Does the model have the proper correlation to the known data and do the representations make sense given what is known about the data sources?” Many AI applications are basically matching functions performing prediction, help predict which lender will fund a given deal. Santa will want to train some of his elves in the basics of data science to help him match his gift inventory to his list of recipients and wishes.

4. “He’s going to find out who’s naughty and nice.”

Predicting behavior is a strength of AI. An example is how ecommerce and entertainment systems measure consumer buying and viewing activity to get an understanding of what consumers like and what they will buy or watch next. Behavior is an outcome and the ability to predict some behaviors, like the propensity to pay, can be very profitable. Today there are AI applications predicting whether a borrower will make their first lease payment, i.e., identify fraud. Fraud is naughty and Santa has the same data tools to find out who is being naughty or nice.

5. “The kids in girl and boy land will have a jubilee.”

And then there’s the payoff – predicting the gifts that the girls and boys want under their Christmas tree. Customer satisfaction is an outcome that every business pursues with maximum effort. AI helps make the right decisions faster, makes the whole operation more productive and more efficient.

As I described earlier, the practical realities of Santa Claus have been a parental challenge since “A visit from St Nicholas” was first published in 1823. I suspect that many parents and grandparents, like me, resort to technology and science fiction to explain how Santa could be real. When it’s my turn to take the challenge again, I plan to combine the key facts we all know about Santa from the holiday jingles with the power of AI to explain how he gets so much done so fast.

And I’ll end this diversion with “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
Written by

Scott Nelson

President & Chief Digital Officer, Board Member

Scott Nelson is the president and chief digital officer of Tamarack Technology. He has more than 30 years of strategic technology development, deployment and design thinking experience working with both entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 companies. Nelson is a sought-after speaker and contributor on topics related to IoT and digital health. His involvement in technology in the local and national technology community reflects an ongoing and outstanding commitment to technology development and innovation.


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