AI: The Guest of Honor at Thanksgiving

We are rapidly approaching Turkey Day in the US, that national holiday that’s a celebration of food, family and more food. This year it looks like Americans want to set a new place at the table….for artificial intelligence (AI).

A survey out this week from AI specialist Conversica shows that 89% of US citizens think AI could be a useful, integral part of their Thanksgiving celebrations, and of the holidays in general.

To understand this, one must understand Thanksgiving and the scars it can leave on one’s psyche.

It’s a holiday deeply rooted in history and tradition; at its heart it’s meant to commemorate a fateful feast shared by Native Americans and European colonists in the 17th Century (and one that probably took place in October, not November, but anyway). What started as an exercise in thankfulness towards the Indians for showing the tenderfoots from over the pond how to survive the harsh, unfamiliar New England winters has evolved into more broadly expressing gratefulness at being citizens of our relatively young country. How better to do that than with a ginormous spread of mostly native foods (turkeys, pumpkins, corn), marked by cherished family recipes shared down through the generations, epic debates over the relative ick factor of including oysters in stuffing/dressing, wall-to-wall, nonstop Thanksgiving cooking shows on the Food Network. Plus stress. Lots and lots and lots of stress.

Americans (if they’re sane, that is) cook a turkey but once a year: On Thanksgiving. And there’s a reason for that. It’s the centerpiece in a gathering that has no rival when it comes to how high the stakes are. Weeks will be spent preparing, hours will be wasted scouring the interwebs for the best brining technique, etc. Because if the bird turns out to be, well, a turkey, as it were—dry, undercooked, tasteless, cardboard-y or sawdusty—it reflects on the hosts. Oh yes. Believe it. There’s no room for a bad bird in this game.

Sure, Christmas can be stressful, everyone running around buying gifts and worried about money and end of year stuff and relatives visiting and holiday travel looming…but because Thanksgiving is fundamentally just a holiday that hinges on sitting down at table with a group of people you purport to cherish for a long, drawn out journey towards a food coma, it’s different. At Christmas at least there are gifts and gift-giving involved—and it’s understood that people have different traditions, and that’s okay. At Thanksgiving there’s a blueprint—you have to have a turkey (vegetarians get a pass here) and a huge spread, you get up at the crack of dawn to deliver a big family meal by the early afternoon, with maybe some NFL or movie watching after, followed by a nap and then a turkey sandwich later in the evening. Maybe one might head out for drinks that night with old friends you only see around the holidays. Everyone does it basically the same way, and everyone does it—Thanksgiving knows no difference in background or creed, other than in the family recipes that show up on the table.

Suffice it to say, if something goes wrong—it’s a day that will live in infamy. And for those who don’t have family or friends around to spend the holiday with, you can throw in a major depressive vibe too.

So no wonder that AI appeals—it must seem like an absolute lifeline for the busy Thanksgiving-er.

When asked how AI could improve the holiday, the top choice was customer service, followed by improving highway traffic, and ensuring flights run on time. Three percent of Americans even think AI could pick safe dinner topics to avoid tense family discussions during Thanksgiving. That speaks volumes right there.

Of course, part of the whole Thanksgiving thing is the Black Friday sales (if you went out with friends the night before, you’re going to lose out on ‘doorbusters’ that start as early as 4 a.m.). When asked how they would want an AI-powered assistant to help with a holiday purchase, the top choice was gift recommendations, followed by product details.  A distant third choice: connecting people to a real live human.

The demographics behind these answers are interesting too. For example, men favor AI over women, and older people are more into it than Millennials (years of stressful Turkey Days, no doubt. They’re worn down).

Not to totally bash Thanksgiving—it’s an integral part of the American experience and an equal if not more important holiday on a national scale than the Fourth of July. When it goes well, it’s wonderful—fantastic meal, golden times spent with friends and family, all of that—but it’s getting there and through it that offers the challenge.

So bring on the AI! I just wonder if, along with recommendations for “safe” topics at the dinner table, if it can also refill my wine glass and stuff the turkey for me. That would be really useful. 

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