When the Computer is the Artist


Years ago I came across a post online that asked what was going to happen to photography once computers became so powerful that anyone could choose a filter and turn their images into ones that looked like Ansel Adams.  The post, made (as I recall) by someone who was very tech savvy, wasn’t an idle question, because he knew where computers were taking digital photography, and it raised some interesting ideas about the future of art and technology, not the least of which was what happens to art when technology makes everyone a passable artist? 

I was reminded of this post by a picture I recently took with my phone at the Self-Realization Meditation Gardens in Encinitas. Images that I take with my phone are usually more to record where I am when I’m shooting with my 8x10 camera or looking for a shot to upload to Instagram. These pictures often aren’t the most inspired, and are intended more to let people know what I’m doing rather than as a piece of art on their own. 

One image (below) I took while at the gardens was of the sea with some surfers. It’s pretty banal, really, and not even Instagram material. But my photos are stored on Google Photos, and occasionally Google Photos will grab one of my images and apply effects on its own to show off its machine learning, and then ask me if I want to save the new version. I’ve found each image that Photos has customized interesting, so I’ve saved them, though I’ve never felt that one was better than the original.

Until now.

The image at the top of this post is Google Photo’s interpretation of my banal image. Not only is the picture converted to black and white, but the edges are burned, the contrast adjusted to draw out the clouds, and the image is cropped. Frankly, Google’s image looks damn good, far better than mine. At the same time, I don’t consider Google interpretation to be my photo since I didn’t adjust it, nor do I consider it Google’s. Would it be ours jointly, or neither of ours? I can’t be sure.

I’m not too concerned, though about Photos showing me up. This is luck, not artistry. Around the same time as it interpreted the above image, Google Photos automatically created a slideshow of a trip I took on Memorial Day. That trip started with a photo of a fellow veteran’s headstone at the National Cemetery near Davis, and so did Google’s upbeat slideshow. Artificial intelligence still isn’t all that intelligent.