Since 1887, the residents of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania have maintained the belief that an immortal groundhog name Punxsutawney Phil can — and will — predict the end of winter.
As popularized in the film Groundhog Day, each year on February 2nd, Phil is coaxed from his home in a tree stump and displayed to a baying crowd. If Phil “sees his shadow” there’ll be six more weeks of winter, say the top-hatted elders; if not, then an early spring is due.
But it’s time for Punxsutawney to stop terrorizing an innocent rodent, says animal-rights group PETA. Instead, says the organization, Punxsutawney Phil should be replaced with an animatronic groundhog that uses AI to actually predict the weather.
“Times change. Traditions evolve. It’s long overdue for Phil to be retired,” PETA president and founder Ingrid Newkirk, wrote in a letter to the The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club.
“By creating an AI Phil, you could keep Punxsutawney at the center of Groundhog Day but in a much more progressive way. Talk about taking your town’s annual tradition in a fresh and innovative direction!”
One of PETA’s core principles is that “animals are not ours to use for entertainment.” The group argues that groundhogs are nocturnal creatures who hibernate through winter in the wild. Punxsutawney Phil, by comparison, is kept awake over the holiday period in a habitat attached to the local library, from which he ventures out to tour local schools.
“As a prey species, groundhogs actively avoid humans,” writes Newkirk. “Being in close proximity to the public causes these animals great stress. When Phil is dragged out of his hole and held up to flashing lights and crowds, he has no idea what’s happening.”
“Gentle, vulnerable groundhogs are not barometers,” added PETA executive vice president Tracy Reiman in a press statement.
But speaking to The Washington Post, Punxsutawney Groundhog Club president Bill Deeley said Phil is treated well and enjoys his routine. He’s fed a healthy diet; his habitat is temperature-controlled; and his burrow inspected by the Department of Agriculture every year. “If he’s so fearful of the cameras, if he’s so fearful of us and of the crowds, why doesn’t he make an attempt to run away?” Deeley told the Post.
PETA’s suggestion is that Phil should get a well-earned retirement, and that the Groundhog Day tradition should be updated for the 21st century. An animatronic rodent could do the job just as well, they say, and with the help of AI it could make more accurate predictions about the weather.
Right now, the business of whether or not Phil “sees his shadow” is decided in advance by Punxsutawney’s elders, but PETA is right that AI could probably do a better job. Just this month, Google shared new research that uses machine learning to predict rainfall much faster than traditional computer systems. And considering the amount of suspicion and misinformation that often surrounds AI predictions, using machine learning could be as mysterious and as unusual event as enlisting a real rodent.
“Today’s young people are born into a world of terabytes, and to them, watching a nocturnal rodent being pulled from a fake hole isn’t even worthy of a text message,” writes Newkirk. “Ignoring the nation’s fast-changing demographics might well prove the end of Groundhog Day.”