’Twas the AI bias before Christmas

Casey Fiesler
3 min readDec 17, 2022
Photo Credit: ”Santa Claus using computer “ by ArturVerkhovetskiy via DepositPhotos

Twas the weeks before Christmas
And Santa was busy
His list was so long
It was making him dizzy

There are too many children
List checking can’t scale
If I do this by hand
I will certainly fail!

But one of his elves
Had a brilliant idea
What if we automate
Christmas this year!

There always are kids
Who are naughty or nice
Every year for millennia
You’ve checked that list twice

Every child there’s been
From Aaron to Zeta
We can build an AI
Because we have the data

Now, Santa is old
Didn’t quite understand
But he trusts his elves
So he okayed the plan

First the elves cleaned the data
They were very precise
To determine the patterns
In the naughty and nice

Gender and parents
And address and race
Grades and faves
Really, every trace

Billions of children
Made into numbers
AI makes predictions
While each child slumbers

The goal of the model
(Just to be clear)
Given these patterns
Who’s naughty this year?

They held back a sample
So that they could test
And the model? Not bad.
Ninety percent, at their best

So they brought it to Santa
And said, never fear!
Machine learning
Will save Christmas this year

Santa pulled out his list
For his own kind of test
Hours later he went
From impressed to distressed

We can’t use this, he said
You must realize the stakes
There also are patterns
In errors this makes

Like take little Aaron
Do you think it’s fair
That in numbers he’s ‘like’
Naughty kids over there?

We’re also assuming
Our own perfect past
Have we made mistakes?
We at least have to ask

Because look at this insight
The data supplies us
Some elves on these shelves
Might have unconscious bias!

And you all made choices
Which features to add
Are you sure this was fair?
And the elves looked quite sad

They had to admit
They’d bought into the hype
But those errors did matter
And Santa was right

For now, Santa said
I’ll go back to my list
Some things need a human
To ensure they’re not missed

I do think tech could help us
You didn’t mean to abuse it
But with any great power
Be careful how you use it

So next Santa hired
An AI ethics team
We moved too fast, he said
We don’t want to break things.

A few years ago someone asked me to explain AI bias to them like they were five, and so I thought of something five-year-olds care about: Santa. It also happens that the idea of using AI to predict who will land on the naughty or nice list also serves as a metaphor for biased recidivism algorithms used in the criminal justice system. (And I’ve also always thought that elf on the shelf is a good way to teach your kids about surveillance…)

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night, where you can dream of real people learning the same lesson that Santa did. :)



Casey Fiesler

Faculty in Information Science at CU Boulder. Technology ethics, social computing, women in tech, science communication. www.caseyfiesler.com