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Generative AI: Santa’s new little helper bringing Christmas cheer to Australia

Santa and a young girl standing next to a phone booth

The festive season is a busy time for most of us, and none more so than Santa himself. From making a list and checking it twice to ensuring his reindeer team is in top form, Santa’s probably busier than anyone else at this time of year – which is why Telstra is giving him a little help in having those all-important conversations with kids all over the country.

From November 15 to Christmas Eve 2023, Telstra will once again enable all its 14,500 payphones nationwide to call the North Pole for a magical conversation with Santa. Kids can find their nearest payphone by simply searching “Telstra Payphone” on Google Maps, use it to dial #46 46 46 (or “#HO HO HO” on the dial pad for free), and have a chat with Father Christmas.

This year, Santa has another helper to make the conversation as natural as an everyday conversation: Google Cloud’s set of generative AI solutions.

Young girl at a Telstra payphone

Generating some Christmas cheer

Working with implementation partner and agency partner OMD, Telstra chose to use Google Cloud's Dialogflow CX as a voice interface for Santa, which has been further enhanced by generative AI and PaLM 2, our next generation large language model that builds on Google’s legacy of breakthrough research in machine learning and responsible AI. Key to this process was also an AI tuning technique called prompt engineering, which provides the necessary context to the PaLM 2 foundation model in order to specifically bring out the traits we normally associate with Santa like his warmth, wisdom and kindness.

Next we needed to ensure the experience felt personable and friendly. To do that, we used our Text-to-Speech custom voice model to capture Santa’s speaking tone and timbre with generative AI, then recreating the various inflections and vocal expression required in different responses from surprise to curiosity and mirth.

Combining these various technologies means that when kids call the North Pole via a Telstra payphone, they’ll get to talk to Santa in a way that is engaging and memorable.

A responsible and principled approach

Most importantly, the team took extreme care to ensure the safety and privacy of the experience for children. We worked with Telstra to put in place a robust and well-tested system that would guide Santa’s conversations away from any topics that might be deemed inappropriate, harmful, or concerning to children. The calls will be transcribed in real-time to ensure the AI is working as intended, the transcriptions are deleted after a week. The generative AI model itself is also geared to converse using child-appropriate language.

One of the campaign’s objectives is in fact safety-related: teaching kids how to find and use a payphone in case of an emergency. This made integration with Google Maps particularly important so children could associate their Santa-chat with real-world payphone locations closest to them.

Christmas is a time to connect with one another, celebrate, and spread some cheer. Our hope is by working with Telstra to bring Santa to Australians, we’ll be able to add extra festive spirit to families all over Australia.

Try it out by simply searching “Telstra Payphone” in Google Maps, dropping by your nearest payphone, and giving Santa a call on #46 46 46 today.