The One Thing AI Scaremongers Forget to Tell Photographers

With all the hype and scaremongering about AI in photography, one crucial point is missing. No matter how good it gets, far from taking over the world of photography, AI will always fail at a critical juncture. Our recent history tells us why.

A look into the future of photography

I’m sitting at my desk suffering from the latest COVID variant. I speak to the smart device in my chest: “Sirexa. Show a photo of the sunrise behind Coquet Island as it will appear tomorrow morning.”

Not so long ago it would have sent out a drone to get the shots from just the right spot, but that’s rarely necessary these days. The computer analyzes the data from the Meteorological Office and then studies thousands of photos that are already on the Internet of the island and its lighthouse. It then makes predictions about what the scene will look like.

My office wall shows one of the photos. I ask the computer to animate it. The waves smash the shore, the lights flash and terns dive into the sea.

“Sirexa. add sound.”

This may have once seemed like science fiction. But every day it gets closer to reality. We read that this technology means the end of photography. But maybe it’s not as scary as we might think. There is one critical point that the alarmists fail to mention.

A visit to the unreal world

I got a surprise yesterday. I’ve been wandering through the endless internet forest and came across something I thought was long gone. It was the virtual reality world of Second Life. Out of curiosity, I opened an account around 2004. However, I quickly got bored with it and moved on to real life instead. The reality was far more exciting and rewarding than any artificial world inhabited by fake people could be. Such worlds have become the basis of many computer games in which non-player characters, computer-generated humans who are part of the game’s story, live out their limited lives. Limited, that is, both in depth of character and in longevity. People don’t care about these machines. If they’re eaten by a dinosaur, zapped by a laser, or hacked in half by an orc, the player doesn’t mourn them.

Second Life and other virtual worlds were supposed to be the next big thing. They allowed complete anonymity, so a user could become a completely different person, hiding behind their avatar. You were born at a time when the internet was still very new in most people’s lives and there was a great deal of paranoid suspicion about sharing one’s identity online. As Internet forums began to grow, they too encouraged users not to use their real names.

There was a bad side to that. Trolls lurk behind false identities. They took great delight in “doxing” people, especially women – trolls are invariably misogynistic – in order to discover their true identities and reveal them to the world. Even so, I used my own name online from the start. My reason was that it showed up in the phone book. Since my name wasn’t John Smith or Peter Jones, I was very easy to find. I’ve been targeted by a troll or two, but I’ve been found by far more good people than the sad, hateful individuals sitting in their sweaty bedrooms.

How Facebook changed everything

Then came Facebook. Unlike Second Life and internet forums, it insisted that people use their real identities. In a way, this was a good thing, as it helped root out anonymous trolling and provided some protection – albeit very slight – against anonymous copyright theft. Those who maliciously hid behind false masks have been exposed and sometimes sued for their bullying behavior. However, Facebook was in control of our personal information, which we published on various websites, and that information was worth money. Anonymity would have contradicted their business model.

Of course, Facebook is not alone in this. When you walk into a store and ask for your email address, or when you use a loyalty card, the stores collect your information so they can target you with advertisements and identify trends in the markets.

When these super rich and big corporations see something that they think will improve their data collection, increase their business, or improve their reputation, they either acquire it or duplicate it. For example, Facebook bought Instagram, Donald Trump created his own social media platform, and Twitter changed the way tweets are presented so larger tweets can be edited.

This is also how the monetization of our photos by third parties happened. Every time you put an image online and people like or comment on it, that data is examined and checked by computers and used as part of Big Data to improve business profits. These robots look at when the photo was posted, what hashtags you used, and who you tagged in the post. But they will also use the data to target you with marketing. These hashtags and the location data make it easy for the robots to recognize what’s in the photo, where you’ve been, and what your interests are. Consequently, they will tweak their algorithms to tailor the ads that are most likely to appeal to you.

No wonder Instagram doesn’t actively discourage those photo merge accounts that share your photos without your permission. They generate lots of likes and comments, all of which contribute to their collected data.

If you don’t like it, you can switch to another platform like Vero. But if this becomes a big hit, then you can be sure that a big company will buy it too. It’s not just Facebook that will do this, and it’s not just being done for financial reasons. If you have registered with a political platform, you can be sure that your data will be used in a way that guarantees your vote.

Some people imagine Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Tony Bezos, Donald Trump, Elon Musk, and other super-rich people all poring over their personal information and discovering that they like Kellogg’s cereal for breakfast and Starbucks coffee at 11 a.m a Wednesday. But let’s face it, you really aren’t that interesting. Neither do I. It’s just a computer churning up your data while also comparing the data of millions of others. It doesn’t know you You are just a tiny, individually uninteresting speck in an ocean of data.

Computers know a lot about you and your shopping habits, as well as the 61% of humanity online. But the people who own them don’t care what brand of camera you own, what your inside leg length was, or where you were last Thursday. But these computers know more about you and your family than you realize. Ten years ago, there was a widely shared story about a supermarket chain that began sending baby product offers to a young girl based on her shopping habits. This enraged her father, who complained at the store. He later called to apologize because the store’s computer program had gotten it right; she was pregnant In the last 10 years, the amount of data has exploded and the algorithms that handle it are much more sophisticated today.

Like the story of the teenage girl, we find this behavior of computers creepy. We freak out when we mention the latest lens on the phone and it shows up in an ad. We feel that our privacy has been invaded. There’s something unnatural and unsettling about it. Animated filmmakers know this too, and in movies, characters are designed to look less photorealistic. Artificial humans are getting better and better, but they still lack the spark of humanity and consequently seem unreal.

Just as we created artificial intelligence, AI is now creating art. But a big part of the value of art is that it’s an interpretation of what the artist is thinking and feeling. A machine does not think and has no emotions. AI images, as realistic as they are, lack humanity. You haven’t felt what you feel when you put this viewfinder to your eye.

And that’s why art in any form, including photography, AI will not replace humans. When we look at a van Gogh painting or an Ansel Adams photograph, part of the meaning is the personality, the soul behind the creation. AI creations have no humanity. Still.