Please don’t use AI to write Christmas carols

“Santa, what the hell are we singing?” “Just keep smiling, Barack.”
“Santa, what the hell are we singing?” “Just keep smiling, Barack.”
Image: Mike Theiler/Reuters
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Christmas carol songwriters should be relieved to hear that they can keep their jobs for a little while longer. It turns out that artificial intelligence hasn’t quite mastered the art of their job.

In a Dec. 21 entry on her personal AI blog, Janelle Shane, a research scientist in industry and machine-learning hobbyist in her spare time, chronicles her journey of trying to teach a neural network to generate Christmas lyrics.

Shane’s process, as she explains, began like all of her other AI projects: by feeding a neural network a dataset to imitate without telling it a specific objective. In the past, she’s used this method on things from knock-knock jokes to Halloween costumes. In this instance, she fed the neural net 240 carols, a mix of ancient and modern ones compiled by the Times of London with neural net hobbyist Erik Svensson (paywall).

With neither knowledge of what it was meant to write nor any working knowledge of English, the neural net began learning by guessing a set of random rules and testing them out. The results began, as expected, by looking like utter trash:

a a a na snn aca naa i s a i aa a a n a uugna nn na i a uaa a a i a a a a a sna aagt o aa

But neural nets, like humans, are capable of making themselves smarter. By comparing its garbage outputs against real songs in the database, it slowly tweaked its rules until, Shane says, it learned the basic structure of a song: capitalized first words at the start of every line, systematic line breaks, and eventually words.

Shane explains that it started with the most common words first:

Hart fon the be the he br wong on the stor Christmas br he, or the wang
Christ, Christ, on bn a me the stord
Hont on thr st bong the wor
I he a s de poog the stow tome on be ser snur

But with more and more training, it learned to produce full lines. The results, in the end, are so bad that they are hilarious. Read Shane’s blog for more Christmas carols, but this one is my personal favorite:

The world and joy of the sleigh
Santa baby bore sweet Jesus Christ

The holly bears a berry,
And all the reindeer of the sky

The holly bears a berry and reindeer
He was born today!

And Santa baby bore sweet Jesus Christ,
And the chimney the angels sing.

When the snowman brings the snow
Christmas tree
Let’s take that road before
And Santa Claus comes tonight
He will bring us goodness and light

Santa baby, a blitzen,
And he was the sun and reindeer and earth.
The Saviour of the chimney tonight

The story of the chimney see
Santa baby, and blood and joyous so world and joy and good will to see
Santa baby bore sweet Jesus Christ
Fa la la la la la la, la la la la la la la la.

King of toys and hippopotamuses [sic] full of the light of that stood at the dear Son of Santa Claus
He was born in a wonderful christmas tree

Run, run Rudolph, run, run Rudolph, run, run Rudolph, run, run Rudolph, run, run Rudolph, run, run Rudolph, run, run Rudolph, run, run Rudolf the new born King.

Well, there you have it. Try putting it to a tune.