Wed. Jul 24th, 2024
Call choices on the HiSanta.ai website include, from left, Santa, Rudolph, Bad Santa and The Grouch. (Screen grabs via HiSanta.ai)

If artificial intelligence is indeed coming for people’s jobs, this week would be a good time to start, to help out the busiest guy on the planet.

Fixie, a Seattle-based startup that helps companies fuse large language models into their software stack, has created HiSanta.ai, a web experience that allows people to have real-time AI voice calls with Santa Claus, Rudolph, Mrs. Claus and other characters.

‘We’ve given it explicit instructions not to answer any questions about the reality of Santa. This is a very important thing.’

— Fixie CEO Matt Welsh

Visitors to the site simply choose a character they want to speak with, click the call button and then have a conversation about holiday wish lists and just about anything else. Santa, for instance, is quick to reply and he talks back with what sounds like a British accent.

“We thought it would be fun,” said Matt Welsh, Fixie’s CEO and one of the startup’s co-founders. “It was one of these things that we built out mainly as a technology demonstration.”

The core technology being demonstrated is Fixie’s platform that helps companies integrate large language model tech into their own products. With a recent focus on real-time voice interaction, Welsh said Fixie has worked hard to get multiple models — speech-to-text, a language model like OpenAI’s ChatGPT-3, and text-to-speech — working seamlessly together.

“When you try to build something like that, there’s a lot of engineering work that has to be done to make it really fast,” Welsh said. “So we had put a ton of effort into making it real time and interactive, and we think the performance is pretty good.”

Speed matters when a little kid is waiting for Santa to react to whatever Christmas present that kid just asked for. Fixie didn’t want any lag in response time, or kids would lose interest. The answers are also pretty clever, and Santa and the other characters are rather engaging.

I asked Santa for a new truck for Christmas and he kindly balked at the luxurious nature of such a request. When he followed up asking what else might be on my list, I asked for world peace, and Santa was delighted to let me know how he appreciated that wish.

Watch how it works in this video from Fixie:

Users can choose between nice characters — Santa, Mrs. Claus, Rudolph, Elfie, or your own creation — and naughty ones — Bad Santa, The Grouch, Karen Claus, and Bad Elfie.

During my conversation with a snippy Bad Santa, I asked him to be a little nicer.

“You must have me confused with that other jolly old elf,” Bad Santa said. “I’m the one who tells it like it is. You want nice? Go write a letter to the Easter Bunny.”

HiSanta launched last week and Welsh said they’ve had more than 10,000 conversations happen so far, with about 20 hours of conversation a day, in aggregate across all users.

Most people talk for a minute or two, but some have tried to keep Santa rambling and Welsh has seen conversations stretch past 30 minutes.

The tool’s builders have also put AI Santa through the paces, trying hard to break it and make it admit or say things that wouldn’t be well suited for Christmas believers.

“My kids stress-tested this quite extensively to try to get these models just to go off the rails, and we couldn’t get it to happen,” Welsh said. “We’ve given it explicit instructions not to answer any questions about the reality of Santa. This is a very important thing. We didn’t want the model saying anything about that.”

Fixie co-founders, from left: Hessam Bagherinezhad, Matt Welsh, Justin Uberti, Zach Koch. (Fixie Photo)

Ditching the handwritten letter to the North Pole and using the phone to call a Santa line or the web to keep track of his movements is not new. The North American Aerospace Defense Command has tracked Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve for more than 60 years. But chatbots, such as ChatGPT’s Santa communicator, and AI are rapidly changing the conversation game.

Welsh said Fixie views HiSanta as a showpiece for what you can do with his company’s tech. A lot has already changed in the quickly moving field of AI since Fixie emerged in the spring, and Welsh said that while excitement in the technology has not waned, people are now becoming aware of the range of technical problems you have to solve to use the tech in any application setting.

“We’ve been focused on not just enabling people to put together the quick and dirty demos, but to get them to production where they’re feeling really good about the results,” he said. “And that’s proven harder than we expected it to be.”

Fixie’s other co-founders include CTO Justin Uberti, a longtime engineering leader who spent more than 14 years at Google; CPO Zach Koch who was most recently director of product management at Shopify; and Chief AI Officer Hessam Bagherinezhad also worked at Xnor.ai, as head of machine learning.

The company raised a $17 million seed round in March.

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