The ubiquity of smartphone cameras and digital photo editing has raised questions about the authenticity of photographs. Google’s latest smartphones, the Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro, take this a step further by using artificial intelligence (AI) to manipulate people’s expressions in photos. This feature, called “Best Take,” allows the phone to search through your photos and replace a person’s expression with a more suitable one from a different picture.
But that’s not all. The Pixel 8 series also introduces a “Magic Editor” feature, an AI-powered tool that enables users to effortlessly erase, move, or resize unwanted elements in photos. The magic here lies in the AI’s ability to analyze the surrounding pixels and fill in the gaps using textures derived from a vast database of images, thereby creating a seamless and visually pleasing result.
While the camera system’s quality and novel AI features have received accolades, they have also sparked ethical issues and sparked a broader debate about the ramifications of modifying reality. Critics and technological observers have called the improvements “bizarre” and “scary.” Some have even warned that it poses a huge risk to people’s already shaky trust in online material.
These concerns have been expressed by Andrew Pearsall, a professional photographer and senior lecturer in Journalism at the University of South Wales. He believes that even slight modifications motivated by aesthetic reasons can lead society astray. He observes that the risks are particularly acute for professionals, but the ramifications are relevant to everyone.
As we navigate this brave new world of AI-driven photography, we must be cautious about where we draw the line. The ease with which we can manipulate images instantaneously on our phones is, to some, a worrisome development. It seems as if we are on the brink of entering a realm of what can only be described as a “fake world,” where reality is malleable and truth is elusive.
To gain insight into Google’s perspective on this issue, we spoke with Isaac Reynolds, the leader of the team responsible for the camera systems on Google’s smartphones. He emphasized the company’s commitment to addressing the ethical considerations of consumer technology. Reynolds clarified that features like Best Take do not fabricate anything but rather offer a unique way to capture a moment, even if it didn’t occur precisely as presented. In essence, these tools create a representation of a moment derived from multiple real moments, emphasizing that this technology is about generating aesthetically pleasing images rather than strict realism.
Professor Rafal Mantiuk, an expert in graphics and displays at the University of Cambridge, adds an important perspective to this conversation. He points out that smartphones are designed to produce visually pleasing images rather than strict depictions of reality. AI, with its ability to “fill in” information that doesn’t exist in the original photo, is a key element of this image enhancement process. It helps improve zoom, low-light photography, and, in the case of Google’s Magic Editor, can add or replace elements in photos
However, while the manipulation of photographs is not a new phenomenon and has been practiced throughout the history of photography, the advent of AI technology has made it easier than ever to augment the real. Earlier this year, Samsung faced criticism for using deep learning algorithms to enhance the quality of photos of the moon taken with its smartphones. These tests revealed that the initial quality of the image hardly mattered; the algorithm always produced a usable image. In essence, the image you captured may not necessarily represent the moon you observed.
The criticism led Samsung to acknowledge the need to reduce confusion between capturing a real image and generating an image using AI. They promised to address this issue.
Google, too, acknowledges the debate surrounding the use of AI in photography and has incorporated metadata into its photos, indicating when AI has been employed. Isaac Reynolds emphasizes that this is an ongoing conversation within the company, with an open ear to what users are saying.
The AI features in Google’s new phones are central to its advertising campaign, highlighting the company’s confidence that users will embrace these innovations. However, the question of whether there’s a line Google wouldn’t cross when it comes to image manipulation remains complex. As Reynolds notes, defining such a line in the sand is an oversimplification in the face of the nuanced nature of the decisions involved in building AI features.
As new technologies raise ethical concerns about the validity of images, Professor Mantiuk reminds us to consider the limitations of our own perception. He points out that the human brain, like AI in smartphones, reconstructs information and fills in missing details. While some may argue that cameras “fake stuff,” our brains do a comparable function in a different way.
So, in the midst of this ever-evolving debate about what is and isn’t real in photography, one thing is clear: the intersection of AI and photography is redefining the boundaries of what we consider authentic and challenging our perceptions of reality, both in the pictures we take and the world we see.