Sure, Santa can bend the laws of physics, but how could he use real-world science and technology to improve his process and get presents out to 750 million households in a single night? From autonomous delivery fleets and data privacy to the Santa cloud and invisibility cloaks, hear how 21st Century tech might just hold the key to the next iteration of Santa Inc.

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Episode Transcript

Alex Roy

This is No Parking, the podcast that cuts through the hype around self-driving technology and artificial intelligence. I’m Alex Roy with my co-host roboticist, Bryan Salesky. Hey Bryan.

Bryan Salesky

Hey Alex. How are you doing?

Alex Roy

I am so excited because today we’re going to talk about the mystery surrounding the world’s hugest supply chain problem. I’m talking, of course, about Santa Claus. Because, I mean, how could he possibly deliver all those gifts on time? Bryan, have you seen the movie “Elf” with Will Ferrell?

Bryan Salesky

Of course, it’s a classic.

Bryan Salesky

Well according to “Elf,” which some people consider a documentary, the elves are still doing everything the old fashioned way. Building every toy by hand, baking cookies and trees, working 24/7. No automation, nothing. Now all of this is obviously very inefficient and a huge lift for a small workforce. I guess there’s some rule that only elves can do it. It doesn’t make any sense. I’m convinced that the latest in artificial intelligence, automation and supply chain tech, robotics, drones, whatever would radically improve the efficiency and output of Santa Inc, which is probably what we should call this episode. Joining us to discuss it, Corinne Iozzio, the Editor-in-Chief of Popular Science. Corinne, welcome to the No Parking podcast.

Corinne Iozzio

Thanks for having me, Alex. This is going to be completely absurd, and I’m so ready for it.

Bryan Salesky

Me too. It’s been a long year. We got a lot of pent up whatever, that we’re ready to let out on this episode. Let’s do it.

Alex Roy

All right. So first of all, I’m sorry I have to ask this. Corinne, do you actually believe in Santa Claus or did you at one point believe in Santa Claus?

Bryan Salesky

You know, I honestly don’t have a conscious memory of believing in Santa Claus. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t. It probably just means more that I don’t have the constructed memories of other people telling me how I reacted to Santa Claus as a child. Because, as we all know, or a lot of us know at this point, a lot of what we “remember” as kids isn’t real anyway. It’s just other people telling us stories that then we absorb into our brains. That’s a very long-winded way of saying I don’t think so.

Alex Roy

I’m sorry we’re not doing an episode about memory because it sounds like that would also be a great episode. Bryan, do you have any memories of Santa?

Bryan Salesky

The only memory I had that made the experience even more magical was that we would lay cookies out at night and then in the morning there were like crumbs leftover. And I thought like, ‘Wow, like that’s real evidence.’.

Alex Roy

But who ate them though? Was it you?

Bryan Salesky

I’ve come to find out later that it was the parents.

Alex Roy

Of course. All right. So a few years ago, Popular Science did a deep dive into the math behind what it would take to deliver gifts to all the children in the world in one night. But because of time zones and datelines, I think it came out to something like 42 hours was the delivery window. So, back of the napkin rundown, how many kids, what would that look like? Corinne, can you walk us through what assumptions Popular Science made at the time of that article?

Corinne Iozzio

So we had to basically look at the number of children, right? And then the number of households and the distance between each household. So you say that the distance between each household is somewhere in like the 1.63-ish from chimney to chimney, right? So then you use that to factor out the distance and say, ‘Okay, if this were to happen in 24 hours, how fast would Santa have to go?’ And he would actually not have to quite hit the speed of light. He would have to get about two thirds of the way there, which is pretty fast for such a rotund dude with a big sleigh full of stuff. So it’s totally possible, but that would be what we would call highly improbable. So what you have to do then to figure out, could this ever logistically be possible given what we know about the laws of space and time and general relativity and physics. And assuming that Santa is way better at a lot of this stuff than we are. I mean, he actually is a mystical creature. Possibly not human, who knows. Maybe he’s just better at bending the laws of physics than we think. And there’s a couple of ways that he could do that. And I can walk you guys through a couple of them, if you’re ready for me to try some tortured metaphors to explain very advanced relative physics.

Alex Roy

I am curious to hear that, but before we go there, you said 1.63 miles between chimneys? How many chimneys or how many households are we talking about here?

Corinne Iozzio

It’s probably in the neighborhood of like 750 million, I’m fairly certain is what we based our math on.

Alex Roy

All right. I’ve heard it said that a thing called a relativity cloud could solve this. Corinne, can you explain what that is?

Corinne Iozzio

Sure. So again, this is assuming that Santa has some superhuman abilities to bend space and time to his will. So a relativity cloud is basically a bubble in which time moves at a different rate. So imagine Santa is moving around in a bubble where time actually moves more slowly than it does on earth. So what could be two, three, four weeks in Santa’s time is maybe a day or two in earth time. And it’s a little bit confusing. So the way that I like to think about it, which again is not a perfect example because we’re not creating a relativity cloud, is if you’re sitting on a speeding train and you throw a baseball up in front of you, the baseball is going to actually end up whacking you in the face because the baseball has stopped moving forward while you have continued moving forward. So relatively, time, you can almost think, is slightly different for the baseball than it is for you. And that’s sort of what’s happening with Santa inside his relativity cloud bubble thing.

Alex Roy

It doesn’t seem very realistic. Cool, but not very realistic. I’ve also heard it said that a wormhole could work. Can you explain what a wormhole is?

Corinne Iozzio

Sure. So again, advanced manipulation of space time. A wormhole is basically the ability to jump from one point in space and time directly to another as if nothing, no time has passed in between. And the easiest way to think about it is imagine space time as a flat plane, like a piece of paper. And you want to get from point A on one side of the piece of paper to point B on the other side of the paper. The fastest way to do that is to just fold the paper in half so that the two spots actually now occupy the same space and time, and then just punch your way through.

Bryan Salesky

All right. That’s all nice and fine. But none of it sounds very realistic. Imagine I’m Santa, I’m the CEO of Santa Inc. I’ve got an unlimited budget to solve this. I’ve got a staff. I’ve got a clear mission. What are the modern technologies and platforms broadly I would need to accomplish my goal. Let’s start with vehicle design. 5 million miles an hour, I think, is approximately two thirds the speed of light. I’m not a physicist, but if Santa has only one sleigh, considering the scientific rules of acceleration, deceleration and just the laws of physics, is it even possible to travel that fast?

Corinne Iozzio

I would say that it’s not impossible. I would say again, as many scientists would, it’s more improbable. Because when you move through air, right, there’s still friction. We don’t really typically think of air as being something that is in our way, but it is. And the easiest way that we see this in the day-to-day is the friction that happens when a sonic boom happens, when you’ve actually displaced so many air particles moving so fast through the air. That’s like a much, much smaller example of this because we’re talking about 770 miles per hour, as opposed to five million or 500 million.

Alex Roy

Assuming Santa is actually a human being. Does a vehicle exist using current technology on which he could be a passenger and survive?

Corinne Iozzio

No. No. I can’t possibly think of anything.

Alex Roy

Would Santa and his sleigh, at current levels of technology, attempting to travel, I hesitate to say, at five million miles an hour, wouldn’t it just burst into flames and explode?

Corinne Iozzio

I’m not going to say that won’t happen. Because it’s very fast, and again, tons and tons of friction. It’s just, it’s too much heat. I don’t know how you would displace all of that heat.

Alex Roy

Are you familiar with railgun technology?

Corinne Iozzio

Yes.

Alex Roy

I guess there are electromagnetic kinetic energy weapons. They replaced cannons. Like how fast… Do you know how fast a railgun round goes? It doesn’t go five million miles an hour. Nothing does.

Corinne Iozzio

No. Nothing does.

Alex Roy

Okay. So let’s work backwards. It would seem obvious that one would want to have not one sleigh, but many sleighs. And that you would either have an operator on board, or you might have… The sleighs might be autonomous. So Bryan, you’ve stated to me in the past that you thought that actual flying cars or drones or autonomous aviation actually is possible. I mean, that the science is there. Am I correct?

Bryan Salesky

I mean, we know how to make things that fly. I think. In fact, there’s been early demonstrations of flying cars. It is a thing.

Alex Roy

So does the power density exist today or in the near future to create a fleet of autonomous flying sleighs that Santa could deploy to accomplish such a task?

Bryan Salesky

I’m sure such a thing could be fashioned.

Corinne Iozzio

Wouldn’t the limiting factor there be the batteries themselves, right? Because the fuel becomes the problem. Cause you’re toting this big fat guy and all of these presents and then how much weight in lithium ion cells.

Bryan Salesky

There are electric planes now. That exists as well.

Corinne Iozzio

Right? But very short hop.

Bryan Salesky

Very short hop. Yes. How to get that around the world would be very difficult. Santa would be charging a lot.

Alex Roy

A distributed network of recharging stations, highly reliable with very fast charge times because you want to be green here. You don’t want to be running…

Bryan Salesky

Maybe you could charge while you’re in the air. Wireless charging.

Alex Roy

What?

Corinne Iozzio

Where are the coils?

Bryan Salesky

I don’t know. You would need to construct something.

Alex Roy

Well, I recall…

Bryan Salesky

It would need to be engineered.

Alex Roy

Wait, Corinne, didn’t Nikola Tesla published columns in Popular Science a hundred years ago about broadcast power, like actually broadcasting electrical energy over the air?

Corinne Iozzio

Oh, absolutely. And it’s not that far off from what we would consider wireless charging now. Its just at a much broader scale that I don’t think, you know, not to be captain buzzkill, but I feel like that’s going to be a lot of this conversation, doesn’t really… Hasn’t really been proven out, from a safety perspective, that amount of voltage just flying through the air. Because normally when we see that amount of electricity going through the air, it’s lightening, and if that hits something, you don’t want it to. It’s pretty bad.

Bryan Salesky

But does Santa put safety first? Really? I mean, when we think about… He lands on a roof, tries to go through a chimney. It seems like he just takes the hardest path.

Corinne Iozzio

Well, and I also don’t 100% buy that Santa is green. That he’s super eco-friendly. Like his primary delivery mechanism requires the burning of coal.

Alex Roy

If he had all these autonomous, electric broadcast powered, autonomous sleighs. And then, I mean, instead of him… He would not be going down all these chimneys himself. He would maybe not even go down any of them because he would have remote, last mile delivery bots.

Corinne Iozzio

Are we talking about a drone swarm?

Alex Roy

Yeah.

Corinne Iozzio

I guess that could work. I mean, you can use drone swarms to spell out things with fireworks. Why can’t they just do a coordinated drop?

Alex Roy

It would also be a lot safer for everybody involved. But what about the, I guess, privacy issues? Because according to legend, Santa knows when you’re asleep, he knows what you want and he’s coming. He knows where you are, he’s coming, or in this case, his drones are coming into your house. And I can imagine that’s a lot of data. And that parents would not appreciate Santa having all this, anyone having all this data being broadcast, transmitted back to the Santa cloud in advance so they could plan their distribution. So how would one protect this data and the privacy of these families?

Corinne Iozzio

Well, yeah, because you can’t really anonymize it. I think it just needs to stay a little bit more analog. Like I think it’s a whisper network.

Alex Roy

Explain that.

Corinne Iozzio

Right? So it’s not necessarily a technological solution, right? Because you can’t… And if you’re associating good and bad behavior with different tots, you can’t anonymize who they are. So I think the parents are just freaking moles here.

Alex Roy

Let’s talk about the supply chain a little bit. It can be problematic. Like how much more can computer vision improve or say scanning technology improve so that they can increase the throughput of children’s letters and mail and process it for greater accuracy, So as not to make mistakes in gift selection and distribution?

Corinne Iozzio

I think we’re pretty good at optical character recognition right now. Like the accuracy is super high unless you’re dealing with handwriting. Right? And that’s the challenge that we’re talking about here is the conversion of handwriting into text that somebody can then react to. Cause we saw very early examples of that. You guys remember the Apple Newton?

Alex Roy

Oh yeah.

Corinne Iozzio

Oh man. The handwriting to text conversion on that was so bad. It was so bad it was a gag joke on The Simpsons.

Alex Roy

Was the Palm pilot after the Newton? It was, wasn’t it?

Corinne Iozzio

Yeah. The Newton was sort of the first portable digital assistant. The long gone PDA.

Alex Roy

You say that optical character recognition is improved greatly. But I think we all know, and I have a child, that children’s handwriting is suboptimal. Is there technology today that can read a children’s handwriting sufficiently too?

Corinne Iozzio

That’s a really, really good question.

Bryan Salesky

I think the answer is that one could be built, but why?

Alex Roy

Well, this is why.

Corinne Iozzio

Clearly we found the use case.

Bryan Salesky

I mean, a lot of kids though, do now have access to a computer from a relatively young age, even if it has to come through the classroom or school. I bet you were getting to a point where, many children at least, probably would just prefer to use an app.

Alex Roy

An app to request their presents?

Bryan Salesky

Yeah.

Corinne Iozzio

I think so. And they could record little voice memos and then you use the…

Bryan Salesky

And kids these days, they know what they want earlier and earlier in age. So, you know, they probably want to really custom configure what they’re asking for so that the elves know what to build.

Alex Roy

Another startup idea. Bryan, we’re in the wrong business.

Bryan Salesky

Wouldn’t that be helpful if your daughter just rank prioritized what she was looking for?

Alex Roy

Well, we are in the wrong business. This business scales. Low infrastructure. This is amazing!

Bryan Salesky

This is e-commerce.

Alex Roy

I’m curious about these robots that work in factories and also these first and last mile robots. Like how nimble are they? Could you, I hate to say, replace the elves? Could an elf manage 10 robots to work on Santa’s assembly line and could those robots work really… I mean, how much faster than a human could they work?

Bryan Salesky

Why do we have to go to replacing the elves, Alex?

Alex Roy

Augment. Augment.

Corinne Iozzio

I think it’s supplementing, right? It’s forced magnification.

Bryan Salesky

Yes! Augment the elves. Make them more efficient.

Corinne Iozzio

Yeah. So there are a couple of ways you can think about that, right? You could go the exoskeleton route, where we develop some tiny exoskeletons that basically help the elves not feel fatigued during long shifts, but then all of a sudden we’re talking about elves working 24/7, and we know that that doesn’t feel great. So the alternative are robots that can learn. Which we have started to see some real success with. A robot that can watch a human or some other input, manipulate something and do a task, and learn to replicate it. So in effect, you could take one elf doing one task, and force multiply that and say you now have five or six or 10 robots that have learned by watching this elf to supplement its work and mirror what it’s doing.

Bryan Salesky

So the real life version of this is Rethink Robotics that Rodney Brooks started. He created a robot called Baxter, which would sit alongside a worker and perform some of the more repetitive tasks. And then you use the human to do the more, perhaps higher skilled tasks. Or more likely, at least in the day and age in which this robot was created, the higher dexterity tasks that would be left to the human.

Corinne Iozzio

Yeah. Cause you could easily train a robot to like pack boxes, to get things into their weird little foam containers that have all the little dugouts in it. The tetris has to go together in a certain way or the thing won’t close. Like that’s a perfect task for a robot.

Alex Roy

The other thing that I’ve noticed in all the Santa lore, is that Santa and the elves are never spotted while making their deliveries. And I was trying to imagine… Let’s suppose everything we’ve talked about, autonomous fleet of delivery sleighs that connect to a Santa cloud. Everything works. What technologies would be necessary to make Santa and his delivery fleet and the elves undetectable while on their mission?

Corinne Iozzio

Yeah. And that’s where it can get really tough. Right? Because you could either go back into the world of physics and start talking about quantum physics and the likelihood of teleportation, where something just is in and out in an undetectable amount of time, beaming from one place to another. But that’s not very practical.

Alex Roy

Or fun. Bryan, you must be familiar with electromagnetic pulse weapons. You know, like every movie they talk about, ‘Oh, nothing works. Solid state chips don’t work. You set off an EMP device.’

Bryan Salesky

You know those are actually a real thing. I mean, there really are EMP weapons. This isn’t just science fiction. Those exist.

Alex Roy

So, could Santa have an EMP emitter that is low power, that just covers a short distance from his sleigh. So no cell phone or other device, which could be used to record him. He could enter an area. All devices are shut down and that solves the electronic recording problem.

Bryan Salesky

This actually would be possible to an extent. Now the challenge would be if you’d expect those devices to operate again.

Alex Roy

Right. Well, you could just make a gift of a replacement.

Bryan Salesky

We’d get awfully expensive.

Alex Roy

He’s Santa. So are you telling me that electromagnetic pulses render solid-state chips that they affect permanently out of action?

Bryan Salesky

I mean, look, I’m not an expert here, but there are, absolutely, there are ways to design such weapons to create permanent damage. Yes. But it all depends on the specifics. You know police, I don’t know if this ever took off, but they’ve experimented with high-speed, like remote control car things that you can deploy and drive under or near the vehicle you’re chasing and then hit a button and it’ll do an EMP blast and basically shut off the car.

Alex Roy

Like Nightrider or Spy Hunter.

Bryan Salesky

Like this is real. They’ve tested these things. Now, is it actually in real practical use? Probably quite a skill to be able to drive such… I mean, depending on the speed of the chase, right, that would take an awful lot of skill to navigate such a thing. But, you know, they’ve experimented with it.

Corinne Iozzio

They could just put it on a dart. Like on a suction cup.

Bryan Salesky

So, in fact, that actually is what’s in widespread deploy… I’ve watched way too much Live PD. It’s such a shame they canceled that show. Basically the Atlanta PD, or Gwinette County PD showed, its in the Atlanta area, they showed a cool little thing called StarChaser, I think it’s called. Or StarChase.

Corinne Iozzio

Yes. I think I saw this episode.

Bryan Salesky

This is super amazing. He like takes the joystick, aligns a dart with some real sticky stuff and like launches a tracker onto the back of the vehicle, and then he backs off. And it’s just, it’s not even a contest. Like that guy’s getting locked up.

Alex Roy

It sounds to me like actually some of the science is quite feasible. All right. I got one more right here. Connected to this, if the EMP device solves the electronic surveillance and video recording component, we’d still need to conceal Santa from actual observation by I. And I think maybe it was in Popular Science, I saw something about an actual cloaking device for military vehicles. It was some kind of projector. So you’d have a camera on one side of the vehicle and a projector on the other. So the camera would record the background and on the opposite side of the vehicle, the vehicle face would show what the camera saw in the background. So if there were trees behind the tank, the closer side of the tank would display trees on it.

Corinne Iozzio

There actually is, it’s not totally dissimilar from a functional standpoint, but there is a toy that is meant to mimic the invisibility cloak from Harry Potter that kind of works in a very similar way. They have a very particular pattern printed on the cloak, and then it works with a camera and an app that basically works to stitch the environment onto the cloak.

Alex Roy

Bryan, please correct me if I’m wrong, that it’s entirely possible to create a Santa fleet of autonomous electric drones, powered by broadcast energy, with sufficient infrastructure to solve the delivery problem. Right?

Bryan Salesky

Solved.

Corinne Iozzio

Did we figure how large this fleet has to be?

Alex Roy

Well, let’s do some back of the napkin math.

Corinne Iozzio

Cause I know what the math is for the relativity clouds to work, and the 750 going 80 miles an hour. But we’re talking much faster than that and no bending of space time.

Alex Roy

I think you would need tens of thousands of autonomous sleighs. And they would have to be autonomous because no one could survive the trip at any speed we’re talking about. So tens of thousands? I don’t think there’s enough time here today to solve this, but we could come back next year and I might actually have a pitch for a business plan around an app that takes kids requests for gifts. And I think you could raise money for that. Well, thanks so much Corinne. That was amazing. Bryan, anything else you’d like to add?

Bryan Salesky

I just really appreciate, Corinne, your time. I’ve learned a lot here today.

Corinne Iozzio

Well, I’m always happy to come in here and, you know, throw some science and some wild notions and go, ‘Well, actually…’ But, you know, I would love if this were a figure out-able problem and maybe we got part of the way there.

Bryan Salesky

I think we have the beginnings, Alex, of a children’s book on how to get them interested in science, technology and math.

Alex Roy

That’s a great idea! By the way, Corinne, you can’t, are you going to take that idea for Popular Science?

Corinne Iozzio

I might have to take it.

Alex Roy

That is such a good idea. Oh my God. All right. Um, Corinne Iozzio is the Editor-in-Chief of Popular Science magazine. We will link to their piece on Santa math, which is very entertaining to this day. Plus, lots more to keep you learning this holiday season. Corinne, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Corinne Iozzio

Happy to do it.

Alex Roy

Well, that’s it from us. If you enjoyed this episode and want to keep the conversation going, please follow us on Twitter @NoParkingPod. Of course I’m everIf you like us, please share No Parking with a friend. Subscribe. Give us a good review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. Doesn’t matter, just give us a good review. No Parking is managed by the Civic Entertainment Group. Megan Harris is our awesome producer. Until next time, I’m Alex Roy. This is the No Parking Podcast.