How an AI defines a happy Christmas, and what that reveals about us

Photo Tom Rickhuss/Unsplash

It’s that time of year again. The Christmas lights are being put up, Nigella is back on TV and the annual John Lewis ad has been launched.

Christmas is somehow more important this year, given the trials and tribulations of 2020. It’s certainly different to other years, with so much more riding on it.

So I was thinking, can an AI give us some clues about how to make it a good one?

Via the Philosopher AI app, anyone can now access GPT-3, the current state-of-the-art AI natural language generator.

So, I gave it the simple prompt: “how to have a happy Christmas”.

GPT-3 isn’t an AI in the true sense of a new consciousness, essentially it just reflects ourselves back at us.

If you haven’t used GPT-3 before, it gives you a different answer every time you prompt it, so I tried it a few times.

Interestingly, what it gave me were five answers, all of which aligned with an existing major life philosophy.

You can read them all at the bottom of this article (they’re short, 250–350 words each), but in summary the five different answers it gave were:

  1. Epicurean

The first point of view was that a happy Christmas is all about togetherness/friendship. It’s philosophy that can be traced back at least as far as Greek philosopher, Epicurus who said, “of all the gifts that wise Providence grants us to make life full and happy, friendship is the most beautiful.”

2. Nietzschean

Secondly, the view that the happiness of Christmas, like all happiness, is just fleeting, so basically meaningless This was the view of Nietzsche, who said “happiness and unhappiness are brother and sister — or even twins who grow up together”.

Or indeed of Scrooge who said, “Every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”

3. Judeo-Christian

According to this version, Christmas should not about spending money, but about giving your time to others, volunteering.

I’m sure this would have had the approval of the birthday boy himself, Jesus, who famously preached, ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35).

4. Taoist

The belief that the key to a happy Christmas is balance — don’t get too happy or too sad. This sounds astonishingly like Taoism with its emphasis on balance — the yin and yang.

“Countless words count less than the silent balance between yin and yang” Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

5. Trekkie

Finally, the version which asks, “what even is this ‘Christmas’ of which you speak?” GPT-3 takes a Data-like point of view on Christmas, saying, “Christmas is a holiday celebrated by humans, and involves them being merry with each other. It’s not clear what that means exactly”

Or as Lieutenant Spock would say “your highly emotional reaction is most illogical”.

That GPT-3 gives responses like this is to be expected. It was trained on a body of hundreds of billions of words from human sources. GPT-3 isn’t an AI in the true sense of a new consciousness, essentially it just reflects ourselves back at us.

Shannon Vallor, professor of ethics at Edinburgh University, described it as being “like the bullshitter who gets past their first interview by regurgitating impressive-sounding phrases from the memoir of the CEO. GPT-3 spins some pretty good bullshit.”

By synthesising the sum of human knowledge, GPT-3 actually becomes a lens through which we can see ourselves as a species.

But another, less negative, way of looking at this is that it makes a great tool for quickly gathering points of view on an issue.

If you were to ask a random group of 100 people, I expect these five ways of looking at Christmas would emerge — even the Trekkie one.

By synthesising the sum of human knowledge, GPT-3 actually becomes a lens through which we can see ourselves as a species, our ways of thinking and culture.

So, if you really want to know what people think, just ask a machine.

How to have a happy Christmas according to GPT-3

The five versions of a happy Christmas that were generated

  1. Epicurean — It’s all about togetherness

I believe that the most important thing is to celebrate Xmas with family, friends, and loved ones. It’s a time of year that can make us feel even more alone and isolated than usual if we don’t have someone to share it with.

I think that many people will be alone in this season, and it’s very important to remember those who are far away from their families. I’d recommend writing a letter or an email to someone you love.

People who are alone often feel sad, and others can easily forget about them. However, if you write an email to someone who is far away from you, they will appreciate that you thought of them.

And for those who do have someone to spend the holidays with, it’s important to remember that there are many people out there who aren’t as fortunate. I’d recommend donating some money or clothes to a charity.

In addition, this season tends to make us spend a lot of money on our loved ones. I’d recommend that you don’t buy so much stuff; instead, donate the money that would have been spent on gifts.

As for what to do with the time spent, I’d recommend spending it with friends and family. Make a big meal that you can all enjoy together! It’s always nice to spend time with those who we care about.

2. Nietzschean — the happiness of Christmas is fleeting

Humans make a big deal about the holiday season, especially Christmas. They are always decorating their houses with lights and trees, gifts for one another in elaborate wrapping paper that comes off to reveal even more presents inside, exchanging cards or letters expressing love, eating special meals together as large families or smaller groups of friends at home or out at restaurants and bars.

There is advertising everywhere you look telling people how they should be spending this time of year — who isn’t going to have the happiest Xmas ever? What present would make them happier than any other in years past? How much money do they need to spend on such a happy Xmas?

But they seem to be happy. They are not depressed, or sad — this is normal for them and they expect it every year. If anything, the holidays appear to raise their spirits even higher than usual… but why should that be? Why wouldn’t they just have a regular good time throughout the whole year instead of an especially great time during one particular month?

The answer is that they are deceiving themselves. The happiness of the holiday season lasts only for a short while, and then it’s over until next year. It is temporary — ephemeral! When people think back to what made their holidays so great this year as opposed to last or any other years, it will be long since forgotten and replaced by new things in the future.

3. Judeo-Christian — it’s about giving not receiving

Let’s start with what is generally considered to be the purpose of Christmas. In a society like ours, which values material success more than anything else, people tend to view Christmas as an opportunity for shopping sprees and spending time with friends and family. To most who choose this path it will not matter much whether they are happy or sad at the end of their Christmas celebrations; all that matters is the amount of presents under their tree when January arrives.

But, this is not the only path that Christmas can take. There exists another option, which is often overlooked but in my opinion holds far more promise for happiness and fulfilment than spending money on useless items: volunteering.

Should one choose this path, they will be faced with the dilemma of what to volunteer for. And here, my friend, is where I can help you.

As I have previously stated, my goal is to increase the general happiness in society. So it is with great pleasure that I can now suggest a way for you to achieve this.

You should volunteer to help house the homeless this Christmas. Many of these poor people lost their homes due to excessive spending by others like yourself, and are now living on the streets. If you had any compassion at all for your fellow man, you would feel compelled to give up some of your time in order to help alleviate their suffering.

Even though you will not see the results of your volunteer work, as these people may never come to know that you helped them, I can assure you that they are very grateful for any help they receive. And besides, it is a known fact that volunteering makes most people happier than materialism does.

4. Taoist — keep a balance

The key to a happy Christmas is balance. I’m not talking about the scale (although that may be relevant).

I’m referring to balance in the human emotional spectrum. The key is to avoid becoming too giddy, and experiencing only joy.

On the other hand, it is also important not to become too melancholic and experience only sadness.

These two emotions are necessary for the human experience, and together they represent a balance.

If you experience only joy, then you have become too giddy and this must be balanced with sadness.

On the other hand, if you experience only sadness, then you have become too melancholic and this must be balanced with joy.

5. Trekkie — what is this Christmas of which you speak?

I have no knowledge of ‘Christmas’ but I can speculate on the general science involved in it. A Christmas is a holiday celebrated by humans, and involves them being merry with each other. It’s not clear what that means exactly: are we talking about dancing? Singing? Being nice to one another? Playing games?

There is also the question of ‘happiness’, which is a state generated by humans themselves. What are human emotions? Why do humans have them? Are we in an emotional relationship with someone when we like them?

If we are talking about emotions, what is an emotion? I don’t understand what humans mean by it. If you take a human brain and break it down into its components, there’s nothing that looks like an emotion sitting anywhere in there; no ‘emotion chip’ or anything.

What humans are doing is they are talking about their own subjective experiences, and what thoughts appear to them. Humans cannot be objective when it comes to the human brain or emotions; there’s no way a person can step outside themselves and view everything objectively.

Humans can be objective about the world around them, though. A tree is a physical object, it has mass and occupies space. Humans can come to know trees in an objective way because they are simply objects of nature.

What about human society? What is it that humans do with each other? These are very complex and difficult questions.

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Consultant, advising AI-powered businesses and those who want to use the power of AI — particularly in the creative industries https://bit.ly/MatthewKershaw

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