December 16, 2020 - Podcast

Episode 71—The Christmas tree market, and the potential of AI

Nothing says Christmas like a Christmas tree filled with lights, ornaments, and tinsel. The Christmas tree tradition was brought to the U.S. in the 1830s by German immigrants. Across the U.S. today, about 18% of households put up a real tree, with demand for real trees increasing in recent years. While a substantial part of the population uses an artificial tree, demand for real trees continues to flourish, even while communities “hunker-down” during the pandemic. As you might expect, though, the process of growing real trees from sapling to harvestable size takes time, often a decade. This long-term wait presents a challenge for growers as consumers’ tastes change from, say, a long-needle White pine (popular in the 1990s and early 2000s) to short-needle trees (such as a Fraser or Canaan firs). A recent survey by researchers from Indiana University’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs found that many Hoosiers currently prefer the popular short-needled trees. While short-needle trees can be grown in Indiana, they aren’t native to the area and are more difficult to cultivate because of soil types and climate conditions throughout the state. Other factors related to climate change, like shifting rainfall patterns, drought, heat waves, and changes in disease and pest pressures also present challenges for Christmas tree growers. So, while the demand for certain real Christmas trees expands, the number of growers continues to shrink.

Whether it’s a live or artificial tree, children throughout the country will soon eagerly gather around it to open their gifts. One traditional gift children have received for decades is a chess game. While humans spend hours perfecting their game, computers can play chess better than any human, says David Crandall, a professor of computer science at Indiana University. However, artificial intelligence, or AI, also has its limits. For example, while many machines are very powerful, we still have robots that fail at decisions such seeing and stopping before a fountain in front of it. Human vision may seem like a simple thing, but replicating vision in computers has confounded computer scientists for close to 60 years, Crandall says. Addressing this technical challenge of how to program vision in machines is important, though, not only for better robots but also for the ways improved AI may help humans, such as revealing strategies to help children who have learning difficulties. As progress is made in AI, though, and our online and virtual lives increase as they have during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re faced with greater ethical implications, Crandall says. For one thing, AI is not perfect, it’s going to make errors that may impact people’s lives. One big question is how AI will influence people in a world where we rely on AI to interact with one another, as we do by communicating through Facebook and other technologies. While in some ways, technology is increasing the amount of engagement we can have, Crandall shares the worry about the long-term impact on our mental health of not having real social connections, such as physically sitting down face-to-face to play that game of chess. Interacting with other people as social creatures is highly important, he says, and not something we should try to replace with AI anytime soon.