Will Photography Soon Be Obsolete? [Encore Publicaton]: Musings on AI as artist

A friend recently pondered via a social media post whether we will have photography as we know it in the future, or if artificial intelligence (AI) will soon generate all of our images.  With tens of millions of people now capturing snapshots on their phones’ cameras and instantly applying AI-generated filters to enhance or modify the images, we can certainly observe an increasing trend toward computer involvement in the making of photos.  But I don’t believe AI will replace the artist’s eye in the making of fine-art photographs for quite some time to come.  Here are a few semi-random musings on this theme.

A machine can certainly generate bad art.  In college in the mid-1980s, I wrote a program for my Computer Science final exam that composed musical canons (pieces in which each voice plays the same melody together, but starting at different times).  My code used a semi-random configuration of musical intervals as the opening melody, then applied a simplified set of the rules of counterpoint (how musical lines are allowed to fit together) to complete the canon.  I received an “A” for this project, but truth to tell, any listener familiar with classical music could instantly discern that the pieces composed by my program weren’t anything like the lovely canons written by Telemann, for example.  In other words, my AI didn’t pass the Turing Test.

In the more than 30 years since I wrote that program, AI has progressed by leaps and bounds.  Computers can now generate poetry, classical and jazz music, and even paintings that many non-experts judge as products of human artistic creativity.  I’m fascinated by the progress, but so far the best of the AI-generated “art” is really just imitation and trickery: it takes a seed of something original such as a photograph or a melody, and transforms it using a set of complex rules that could be described as a pre-programmed artistic style into something pleasant enough but not inspiring.

In his landmark 1979 book, “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid,” Douglas Hofstadter amazed the world by demonstrating comparable interlocking themes of grace and elegance among the very different disciplines of mathematics, visual art, and music.  He even speculated on the ability of machines to create works of great insight.  But Hofstadter’s proposed approach differed from that of the AI field that has developed since then in that he favored teaching machines to create via an understanding of how the human mind creates, as opposed to today’s AI approach of taking mountains of data and throwing brute force calculations at it.  To my eye, ear, and mind, this brute force method is the reason most of today’s attempts to artificially emulate the creative process are not insightful and do not add anything to their genres.  And so far, the vast majority of these attempts fail their respective Turing Tests.  That is, humans can tell it is a machine and not a human generating the “art.”

Applying these musings to the art of photography, what do see today?  To be sure, more images are being generated today than ever before in human history, and the art of photography is being devalued by its sheer pervasiveness.  Everyone captures images now, and most of them believe that makes them photographers.  While photographers have always required the involvement of a machine in the creation of their art, good photographers have always relied on their artistic vision, the so-called artist’s eye, to create images that are special.  I don’t believe that all the Meitu and similar AI filters that abound today are creating any photographic art that adds insight or helps interpret the world around us.

One very central component in photography is composition.  How does the photographer choose what elements to include in the image, and how will these elements be combined?  Read my recent post on composition here: Post on Composition.  This vital aspect of photography does use some “rules”, such as the Rule of Thirds, Leading Lines, Framing Elements, Point of View, Foreground/Background, and Symmetry and Patterns.  Rules, of course, can be programmed into an AI so that the machine can emulate the way humans create.  But in photographic composition, the “rules” are really just guidelines for getting started.  A good photographer knows when to break the rules for artistic impact.

Even the dumbest devices are capable of generating images.  Security cameras can capture images that we would consider to be rudimentary documentary photographs.  Given long enough, a security camera might accidentally capture what we would consider to be a good street photography image, because after capturing millions of dull scenes, sooner or later the camera will catch a random alignment of interesting elements.  It’s like thousands of monkeys typing random characters: given enough time, one of them will coincidentally type out a Shakespeare sonnet or even a full play.  As wearable computing devices become more pervasive, many people’s lives will be documented in real-time via the capture of millions of images.  Some of these may be interesting to their friends and perhaps the general public.  A few may even have artistic value.  But true artistry isn’t characterized by coincidence.

I don’t doubt that eventually we will get to the point where machines can create images as good as much of what humans can create.  I think we’ll get there, but it will take a long, long time.  And in the meantime, the role of photographer as artist, experimenter, and interpreter of the world around us will continue to be central to our society’s need for communication and expression.

What do you think about the future of photography?  Will we soon see machines creating much of our imagery?  How about our good, artistic imagery?  Please share your thoughts here.

Camera as a Service? [Encore Publication]: A first look at Relonch’s artificial intelligence photography service

In the 150 or so years of its history, the camera has evolved rapidly as a result of the advent of new technologies, each promising to dramatically simplify the photographic process and improve the resulting images.  Just within my lifetime, there have been major upheavals via the introductions of the Kodak Instamatic, the Polaroid SX-70, and of course digital photography.  So perhaps it was inevitable that someone would develop an AI (artificial intelligence) to make photography as simple as pushing a single button.

A company called Relonch (https://relonch.com/) is developing such a system now.  Sometime in 2018, they expect to roll out a Camera as a Service for $99 per month.  You get a loaner of a brightly colored Relonch 291 camera (manufactured by Samsung), with a fixed focal length lens and only a single button, which is used to take the picture.  It doesn’t even have an LCD screen to review your images.  The purported value of the subscription price, of course, is not derived from the camera hardware, but rather from the service.  For this lofty price, your camera transmits your image files to Relonch, who then use algorithms to analyze and process the files.  The next day, they send the processed images that they consider to be your best photos back to your mobile device of choice.

Relonch 291
The Relonch 291 camera

The concept here is that most people are confused by all the settings on their camera, even if it’s a fairly simple point-and-shoot device, so their photos rarely come out the way they envisioned them.  Instead, let them use a simple camera with just a single button, but employ AI techniques to post-process the best images to make them look closer to the way the user intended.

I haven’t tried the camera and its wraparound service yet (the company’s headquarters and showroom are in Palo Alto, near to where I live, so perhaps I can do so soon), but based only on their description of the concept I share my thoughts here.

  1. Will users pay $1200 per year for this service?  I’m skeptical as to whether there is a broad market for the service at this price point.  “Serious” photographers, that is professional and enthusiast amateurs, already know how to use the manual controls on our cameras and enjoy the process of capturing images and enhancing them during post-processing to achieve the final results we want.  Are there enough users who don’t know how to use their cameras but are still willing to pay so much for better images?  Time will tell.
  2. Are people willing to leave the choice of which images they receive up to a software algorithm?  I wouldn’t want someone else, even a top professional photographer, deciding which of my images I get to see and permanently deleting the rest.  And I certainly wouldn’t want an AI to make this decision for me.
  3. Are users okay with waiting a day to see and share their images?  We’ve gotten pretty spoiled as a consumer class.  We expect instant gratification, and ever since the first Polaroid cameras came out in the 1940s, photographers have been able to see their images right away.  Waiting a day may not fly.
  4. Do people really want their photography to be mechanized?  For its whole history, photography has seen its reputation tarnished when compared to other visual art media because a part of this art form includes the use of a mechanical device, the camera.  Just as a great painter creates her art through her vision and her technique, so does a great photographer.  The gear we use is only incidental to the quality of the images we create.  I fear that by taking the craft out of the process and substituting an AI for the artist’s vision, the Relonch service will further degrade photography as an art form.  And let’s be honest here.  An AI can adjust color balance, sharpness, clarity, vibrance, and exposure to improve a raw image, but it can’t determine how to crop or selectively adjust parts of the image to make it artistically pleasing or to give it a story to tell.  And most important of all, no amount of post-processing can turn a poorly composed or an uninteresting image into one worth looking at.  An AI may soon be able to drive our cars from Point A to Point B, be we’re a long way from having an algorithm that can create true visual fine art.  I’ll leave you with the words of master landscape photographer Ansel Adams: “There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”

What do you think of the Camera as a Service concept?  Valuable evolution of photography that will bring its benefits to a wider range of humanity, or expensive gimmick that will degrade the artistic worth of the medium of photography?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about gear?  Find them all here: Posts on Gear.

Will Photography Soon Be Obsolete? [Encore Publicaton]: Musings on AI as artist

A friend recently pondered via a social media post whether we will have photography as we know it in the future, or if artificial intelligence (AI) will soon generate all of our images.  With tens of millions of people now capturing snapshots on their phones’ cameras and instantly applying AI-generated filters to enhance or modify the images, we can certainly observe an increasing trend toward computer involvement in the making of photos.  But I don’t believe AI will replace the artist’s eye in the making of fine-art photographs for quite some time to come.  Here are a few semi-random musings on this theme.

A machine can certainly generate bad art.  In college in the mid-1980s, I wrote a program for my Computer Science final exam that composed musical canons (pieces in which each voice plays the same melody together, but starting at different times).  My code used a semi-random configuration of musical intervals as the opening melody, then applied a simplified set of the rules of counterpoint (how musical lines are allowed to fit together) to complete the canon.  I received an “A” for this project, but truth to tell, any listener familiar with classical music could instantly discern that the pieces composed by my program weren’t anything like the lovely canons written by Telemann, for example.  In other words, my AI didn’t pass the Turing Test.

In the more than 30 years since I wrote that program, AI has progressed by leaps and bounds.  Computers can now generate poetry, classical and jazz music, and even paintings that many non-experts judge as products of human artistic creativity.  I’m fascinated by the progress, but so far the best of the AI-generated “art” is really just imitation and trickery: it takes a seed of something original such as a photograph or a melody, and transforms it using a set of complex rules that could be described as a pre-programmed artistic style into something pleasant enough but not inspiring.

In his landmark 1979 book, “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid,” Douglas Hofstadter amazed the world by demonstrating comparable interlocking themes of grace and elegance among the very different disciplines of mathematics, visual art, and music.  He even speculated on the ability of machines to create works of great insight.  But Hofstadter’s proposed approach differed from that of the AI field that has developed since then in that he favored teaching machines to create via an understanding of how the human mind creates, as opposed to today’s AI approach of taking mountains of data and throwing brute force calculations at it.  To my eye, ear, and mind, this brute force method is the reason most of today’s attempts to artificially emulate the creative process are not insightful and do not add anything to their genres.  And so far, the vast majority of these attempts fail their respective Turing Tests.  That is, humans can tell it is a machine and not a human generating the “art.”

Applying these musings to the art of photography, what do see today?  To be sure, more images are being generated today than ever before in human history, and the art of photography is being devalued by its sheer pervasiveness.  Everyone captures images now, and most of them believe that makes them photographers.  While photographers have always required the involvement of a machine in the creation of their art, good photographers have always relied on their artistic vision, the so-called artist’s eye, to create images that are special.  I don’t believe that all the Meitu and similar AI filters that abound today are creating any photographic art that adds insight or helps interpret the world around us.

One very central component in photography is composition.  How does the photographer choose what elements to include in the image, and how will these elements be combined?  Read my recent post on composition here: Post on Composition.  This vital aspect of photography does use some “rules”, such as the Rule of Thirds, Leading Lines, Framing Elements, Point of View, Foreground/Background, and Symmetry and Patterns.  Rules, of course, can be programmed into an AI so that the machine can emulate the way humans create.  But in photographic composition, the “rules” are really just guidelines for getting started.  A good photographer knows when to break the rules for artistic impact.

Even the dumbest devices are capable of generating images.  Security cameras can capture images that we would consider to be rudimentary documentary photographs.  Given long enough, a security camera might accidentally capture what we would consider to be a good street photography image, because after capturing millions of dull scenes, sooner or later the camera will catch a random alignment of interesting elements.  It’s like thousands of monkeys typing random characters: given enough time, one of them will coincidentally type out a Shakespeare sonnet or even a full play.  As wearable computing devices become more pervasive, many people’s lives will be documented in real-time via the capture of millions of images.  Some of these may be interesting to their friends and perhaps the general public.  A few may even have artistic value.  But true artistry isn’t characterized by coincidence.

I don’t doubt that eventually we will get to the point where machines can create images as good as much of what humans can create.  I think we’ll get there, but it will take a long, long time.  And in the meantime, the role of photographer as artist, experimenter, and interpreter of the world around us will continue to be central to our society’s need for communication and expression.

What do you think about the future of photography?  Will we soon see machines creating much of our imagery?  How about our good, artistic imagery?  Please share your thoughts here.

Camera as a Service? [Encore Publication]: A first look at Relonch’s artificial intelligence photography service

In the 150 or so years of its history, the camera has evolved rapidly as a result of the advent of new technologies, each promising to dramatically simplify the photographic process and improve the resulting images.  Just within my lifetime, there have been major upheavals via the introductions of the Kodak Instamatic, the Polaroid SX-70, and of course digital photography.  So perhaps it was inevitable that someone would develop an AI (artificial intelligence) to make photography as simple as pushing a single button.

A company called Relonch (https://relonch.com/) is developing such a system now.  Sometime in 2018, they expect to roll out a Camera as a Service for $99 per month.  You get a loaner of a brightly colored Relonch 291 camera (manufactured by Samsung), with a fixed focal length lens and only a single button, which is used to take the picture.  It doesn’t even have an LCD screen to review your images.  The purported value of the subscription price, of course, is not derived from the camera hardware, but rather from the service.  For this lofty price, your camera transmits your image files to Relonch, who then use algorithms to analyze and process the files.  The next day, they send the processed images that they consider to be your best photos back to your mobile device of choice.

Relonch 291
The Relonch 291 camera

The concept here is that most people are confused by all the settings on their camera, even if it’s a fairly simple point-and-shoot device, so their photos rarely come out the way they envisioned them.  Instead, let them use a simple camera with just a single button, but employ AI techniques to post-process the best images to make them look closer to the way the user intended.

I haven’t tried the camera and its wraparound service yet (the company’s headquarters and showroom are in Palo Alto, near to where I live, so perhaps I can do so soon), but based only on their description of the concept I share my thoughts here.

  1. Will users pay $1200 per year for this service?  I’m skeptical as to whether there is a broad market for the service at this price point.  “Serious” photographers, that is professional and enthusiast amateurs, already know how to use the manual controls on our cameras and enjoy the process of capturing images and enhancing them during post-processing to achieve the final results we want.  Are there enough users who don’t know how to use their cameras but are still willing to pay so much for better images?  Time will tell.
  2. Are people willing to leave the choice of which images they receive up to a software algorithm?  I wouldn’t want someone else, even a top professional photographer, deciding which of my images I get to see and permanently deleting the rest.  And I certainly wouldn’t want an AI to make this decision for me.
  3. Are users okay with waiting a day to see and share their images?  We’ve gotten pretty spoiled as a consumer class.  We expect instant gratification, and ever since the first Polaroid cameras came out in the 1940s, photographers have been able to see their images right away.  Waiting a day may not fly.
  4. Do people really want their photography to be mechanized?  For its whole history, photography has seen its reputation tarnished when compared to other visual art media because a part of this art form includes the use of a mechanical device, the camera.  Just as a great painter creates her art through her vision and her technique, so does a great photographer.  The gear we use is only incidental to the quality of the images we create.  I fear that by taking the craft out of the process and substituting an AI for the artist’s vision, the Relonch service will further degrade photography as an art form.  And let’s be honest here.  An AI can adjust color balance, sharpness, clarity, vibrance, and exposure to improve a raw image, but it can’t determine how to crop or selectively adjust parts of the image to make it artistically pleasing or to give it a story to tell.  And most important of all, no amount of post-processing can turn a poorly composed or an uninteresting image into one worth looking at.  An AI may soon be able to drive our cars from Point A to Point B, be we’re a long way from having an algorithm that can create true visual fine art.  I’ll leave you with the words of master landscape photographer Ansel Adams: “There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”

What do you think of the Camera as a Service concept?  Valuable evolution of photography that will bring its benefits to a wider range of humanity, or expensive gimmick that will degrade the artistic worth of the medium of photography?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about gear?  Find them all here: Posts on Gear.

Will Photography Soon Be Obsolete? [Encore Publicaton]: Musings on AI as artist

A friend recently pondered via a social media post whether we will have photography as we know it in the future, or if artificial intelligence (AI) will soon generate all of our images.  With tens of millions of people now capturing snapshots on their phones’ cameras and instantly applying AI-generated filters to enhance or modify the images, we can certainly observe an increasing trend toward computer involvement in the making of photos.  But I don’t believe AI will replace the artist’s eye in the making of fine-art photographs for quite some time to come.  Here are a few semi-random musings on this theme.

A machine can certainly generate bad art.  In college in the mid-1980s, I wrote a program for my Computer Science final exam that composed musical canons (pieces in which each voice plays the same melody together, but starting at different times).  My code used a semi-random configuration of musical intervals as the opening melody, then applied a simplified set of the rules of counterpoint (how musical lines are allowed to fit together) to complete the canon.  I received an “A” for this project, but truth to tell, any listener familiar with classical music could instantly discern that the pieces composed by my program weren’t anything like the lovely canons written by Telemann, for example.  In other words, my AI didn’t pass the Turing Test.

In the more than 30 years since I wrote that program, AI has progressed by leaps and bounds.  Computers can now generate poetry, classical and jazz music, and even paintings that many non-experts judge as products of human artistic creativity.  I’m fascinated by the progress, but so far the best of the AI-generated “art” is really just imitation and trickery: it takes a seed of something original such as a photograph or a melody, and transforms it using a set of complex rules that could be described as a pre-programmed artistic style into something pleasant enough but not inspiring.

In his landmark 1979 book, “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid,” Douglas Hofstadter amazed the world by demonstrating comparable interlocking themes of grace and elegance among the very different disciplines of mathematics, visual art, and music.  He even speculated on the ability of machines to create works of great insight.  But Hofstadter’s proposed approach differed from that of the AI field that has developed since then in that he favored teaching machines to create via an understanding of how the human mind creates, as opposed to today’s AI approach of taking mountains of data and throwing brute force calculations at it.  To my eye, ear, and mind, this brute force method is the reason most of today’s attempts to artificially emulate the creative process are not insightful and do not add anything to their genres.  And so far, the vast majority of these attempts fail their respective Turing Tests.  That is, humans can tell it is a machine and not a human generating the “art.”

Applying these musings to the art of photography, what do see today?  To be sure, more images are being generated today than ever before in human history, and the art of photography is being devalued by its sheer pervasiveness.  Everyone captures images now, and most of them believe that makes them photographers.  While photographers have always required the involvement of a machine in the creation of their art, good photographers have always relied on their artistic vision, the so-called artist’s eye, to create images that are special.  I don’t believe that all the Meitu and similar AI filters that abound today are creating any photographic art that adds insight or helps interpret the world around us.

One very central component in photography is composition.  How does the photographer choose what elements to include in the image, and how will these elements be combined?  Read my recent post on composition here: Post on Composition.  This vital aspect of photography does use some “rules”, such as the Rule of Thirds, Leading Lines, Framing Elements, Point of View, Foreground/Background, and Symmetry and Patterns.  Rules, of course, can be programmed into an AI so that the machine can emulate the way humans create.  But in photographic composition, the “rules” are really just guidelines for getting started.  A good photographer knows when to break the rules for artistic impact.

Even the dumbest devices are capable of generating images.  Security cameras can capture images that we would consider to be rudimentary documentary photographs.  Given long enough, a security camera might accidentally capture what we would consider to be a good street photography image, because after capturing millions of dull scenes, sooner or later the camera will catch a random alignment of interesting elements.  It’s like thousands of monkeys typing random characters: given enough time, one of them will coincidentally type out a Shakespeare sonnet or even a full play.  As wearable computing devices become more pervasive, many people’s lives will be documented in real-time via the capture of millions of images.  Some of these may be interesting to their friends and perhaps the general public.  A few may even have artistic value.  But true artistry isn’t characterized by coincidence.

I don’t doubt that eventually we will get to the point where machines can create images as good as much of what humans can create.  I think we’ll get there, but it will take a long, long time.  And in the meantime, the role of photographer as artist, experimenter, and interpreter of the world around us will continue to be central to our society’s need for communication and expression.

What do you think about the future of photography?  Will we soon see machines creating much of our imagery?  How about our good, artistic imagery?  Please share your thoughts here.

Will Photography Soon Be Obsolete? [Encore Publicaton]: Musings on AI as artist

A friend recently pondered via a social media post whether we will have photography as we know it in the future, or if artificial intelligence (AI) will soon generate all of our images.  With tens of millions of people now capturing snapshots on their phones’ cameras and instantly applying AI-generated filters to enhance or modify the images, we can certainly observe an increasing trend toward computer involvement in the making of photos.  But I don’t believe AI will replace the artist’s eye in the making of fine-art photographs for quite some time to come.  Here are a few semi-random musings on this theme.

A machine can certainly generate bad art.  In college in the mid-1980s, I wrote a program for my Computer Science final exam that composed musical canons (pieces in which each voice plays the same melody together, but starting at different times).  My code used a semi-random configuration of musical intervals as the opening melody, then applied a simplified set of the rules of counterpoint (how musical lines are allowed to fit together) to complete the canon.  I received an “A” for this project, but truth to tell, any listener familiar with classical music could instantly discern that the pieces composed by my program weren’t anything like the lovely canons written by Telemann, for example.  In other words, my AI didn’t pass the Turing Test.

In the more than 30 years since I wrote that program, AI has progressed by leaps and bounds.  Computers can now generate poetry, classical and jazz music, and even paintings that many non-experts judge as products of human artistic creativity.  I’m fascinated by the progress, but so far the best of the AI-generated “art” is really just imitation and trickery: it takes a seed of something original such as a photograph or a melody, and transforms it using a set of complex rules that could be described as a pre-programmed artistic style into something pleasant enough but not inspiring.

In his landmark 1979 book, “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid,” Douglas Hofstadter amazed the world by demonstrating comparable interlocking themes of grace and elegance among the very different disciplines of mathematics, visual art, and music.  He even speculated on the ability of machines to create works of great insight.  But Hofstadter’s proposed approach differed from that of the AI field that has developed since then in that he favored teaching machines to create via an understanding of how the human mind creates, as opposed to today’s AI approach of taking mountains of data and throwing brute force calculations at it.  To my eye, ear, and mind, this brute force method is the reason most of today’s attempts to artificially emulate the creative process are not insightful and do not add anything to their genres.  And so far, the vast majority of these attempts fail their respective Turing Tests.  That is, humans can tell it is a machine and not a human generating the “art.”

Applying these musings to the art of photography, what do see today?  To be sure, more images are being generated today than ever before in human history, and the art of photography is being devalued by its sheer pervasiveness.  Everyone captures images now, and most of them believe that makes them photographers.  While photographers have always required the involvement of a machine in the creation of their art, good photographers have always relied on their artistic vision, the so-called artist’s eye, to create images that are special.  I don’t believe that all the Meitu and similar AI filters that abound today are creating any photographic art that adds insight or helps interpret the world around us.

One very central component in photography is composition.  How does the photographer choose what elements to include in the image, and how will these elements be combined?  Read my recent post on composition here: Post on Composition.  This vital aspect of photography does use some “rules”, such as the Rule of Thirds, Leading Lines, Framing Elements, Point of View, Foreground/Background, and Symmetry and Patterns.  Rules, of course, can be programmed into an AI so that the machine can emulate the way humans create.  But in photographic composition, the “rules” are really just guidelines for getting started.  A good photographer knows when to break the rules for artistic impact.

Even the dumbest devices are capable of generating images.  Security cameras can capture images that we would consider to be rudimentary documentary photographs.  Given long enough, a security camera might accidentally capture what we would consider to be a good street photography image, because after capturing millions of dull scenes, sooner or later the camera will catch a random alignment of interesting elements.  It’s like thousands of monkeys typing random characters: given enough time, one of them will coincidentally type out a Shakespeare sonnet or even a full play.  As wearable computing devices become more pervasive, many people’s lives will be documented in real-time via the capture of millions of images.  Some of these may be interesting to their friends and perhaps the general public.  A few may even have artistic value.  But true artistry isn’t characterized by coincidence.

I don’t doubt that eventually we will get to the point where machines can create images as good as much of what humans can create.  I think we’ll get there, but it will take a long, long time.  And in the meantime, the role of photographer as artist, experimenter, and interpreter of the world around us will continue to be central to our society’s need for communication and expression.

What do you think about the future of photography?  Will we soon see machines creating much of our imagery?  How about our good, artistic imagery?  Please share your thoughts here.

Camera as a Service? [Encore Publication]: A first look at Relonch’s artificial intelligence photography service

In the 150 or so years of its history, the camera has evolved rapidly as a result of the advent of new technologies, each promising to dramatically simplify the photographic process and improve the resulting images.  Just within my lifetime, there have been major upheavals via the introductions of the Kodak Instamatic, the Polaroid SX-70, and of course digital photography.  So perhaps it was inevitable that someone would develop an AI (artificial intelligence) to make photography as simple as pushing a single button.

A company called Relonch (https://relonch.com/) is developing such a system now.  Sometime in 2018, they expect to roll out a Camera as a Service for $99 per month.  You get a loaner of a brightly colored Relonch 291 camera (manufactured by Samsung), with a fixed focal length lens and only a single button, which is used to take the picture.  It doesn’t even have an LCD screen to review your images.  The purported value of the subscription price, of course, is not derived from the camera hardware, but rather from the service.  For this lofty price, your camera transmits your image files to Relonch, who then use algorithms to analyze and process the files.  The next day, they send the processed images that they consider to be your best photos back to your mobile device of choice.

Relonch 291
The Relonch 291 camera

The concept here is that most people are confused by all the settings on their camera, even if it’s a fairly simple point-and-shoot device, so their photos rarely come out the way they envisioned them.  Instead, let them use a simple camera with just a single button, but employ AI techniques to post-process the best images to make them look closer to the way the user intended.

I haven’t tried the camera and its wraparound service yet (the company’s headquarters and showroom are in Palo Alto, near to where I live, so perhaps I can do so soon), but based only on their description of the concept I share my thoughts here.

  1. Will users pay $1200 per year for this service?  I’m skeptical as to whether there is a broad market for the service at this price point.  “Serious” photographers, that is professional and enthusiast amateurs, already know how to use the manual controls on our cameras and enjoy the process of capturing images and enhancing them during post-processing to achieve the final results we want.  Are there enough users who don’t know how to use their cameras but are still willing to pay so much for better images?  Time will tell.
  2. Are people willing to leave the choice of which images they receive up to a software algorithm?  I wouldn’t want someone else, even a top professional photographer, deciding which of my images I get to see and permanently deleting the rest.  And I certainly wouldn’t want an AI to make this decision for me.
  3. Are users okay with waiting a day to see and share their images?  We’ve gotten pretty spoiled as a consumer class.  We expect instant gratification, and ever since the first Polaroid cameras came out in the 1940s, photographers have been able to see their images right away.  Waiting a day may not fly.
  4. Do people really want their photography to be mechanized?  For its whole history, photography has seen its reputation tarnished when compared to other visual art media because a part of this art form includes the use of a mechanical device, the camera.  Just as a great painter creates her art through her vision and her technique, so does a great photographer.  The gear we use is only incidental to the quality of the images we create.  I fear that by taking the craft out of the process and substituting an AI for the artist’s vision, the Relonch service will further degrade photography as an art form.  And let’s be honest here.  An AI can adjust color balance, sharpness, clarity, vibrance, and exposure to improve a raw image, but it can’t determine how to crop or selectively adjust parts of the image to make it artistically pleasing or to give it a story to tell.  And most important of all, no amount of post-processing can turn a poorly composed or an uninteresting image into one worth looking at.  An AI may soon be able to drive our cars from Point A to Point B, be we’re a long way from having an algorithm that can create true visual fine art.  I’ll leave you with the words of master landscape photographer Ansel Adams: “There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”

What do you think of the Camera as a Service concept?  Valuable evolution of photography that will bring its benefits to a wider range of humanity, or expensive gimmick that will degrade the artistic worth of the medium of photography?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about gear?  Find them all here: Posts on Gear.

Will Photography Soon Be Obsolete?: Musings on AI as artist

A friend recently pondered via a social media post whether we will have photography as we know it in the future, or if artificial intelligence (AI) will soon generate all of our images.  With tens of millions of people now capturing snapshots on their phones’ cameras and instantly applying AI-generated filters to enhance or modify the images, we can certainly observe an increasing trend toward computer involvement in the making of photos.  But I don’t believe AI will replace the artist’s eye in the making of fine-art photographs for quite some time to come.  Here are a few semi-random musings on this theme.

A machine can certainly generate bad art.  In college in the mid-1980s, I wrote a program for my Computer Science final exam that composed musical canons (pieces in which each voice plays the same melody together, but starting at different times).  My code used a semi-random configuration of musical intervals as the opening melody, then applied a simplified set of the rules of counterpoint (how musical lines are allowed to fit together) to complete the canon.  I received an “A” for this project, but truth to tell, any listener familiar with classical music could instantly discern that the pieces composed by my program weren’t anything like the lovely canons written by Telemann, for example.  In other words, my AI didn’t pass the Turing Test.

In the more than 30 years since I wrote that program, AI has progressed by leaps and bounds.  Computers can now generate poetry, classical and jazz music, and even paintings that many non-experts judge as products of human artistic creativity.  I’m fascinated by the progress, but so far the best of the AI-generated “art” is really just imitation and trickery: it takes a seed of something original such as a photograph or a melody, and transforms it using a set of complex rules that could be described as a pre-programmed artistic style into something pleasant enough but not inspiring.

In his landmark 1979 book, “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid,” Douglas Hofstadter amazed the world by demonstrating comparable interlocking themes of grace and elegance amount the very different disciplines of mathematics, visual art, and music.  He even speculated on the ability of machines to create works of great insight.  But Hofstadter’s proposed approach differed from that of the AI field that has developed since then in that he favored teaching machines to create via an understanding of how the human mind creates, as opposed to today’s AI approach of taking mountains of data and throwing brute force calculations at it.  To my eye, ear, and mind, this brute force method is the reason most of today’s attempts to artificially emulate the creative process are not insightful and do not add anything to their genres.  And so far, the vast majority of these attempts fail their respective Turing Tests.  That is, humans can tell it is a machine and not a human generating the “art.”

Applying these musings to the art of photography, what do see today?  To be sure, more images are being generated today than ever before in human history, and the art of photography is being devalued by its sheer pervasiveness.  Everyone captures images now, and most of them believe that makes them photographers.  While photographers have always required the involvement of a machine in the creation of their art, good photographers have always relied on their artistic vision, the so-called artist’s eye, to create images that are special.  I don’t believe that all the Meitu and similar AI filters that abound today are creating any photographic art that adds insight or helps interpret the world around us.

One very central component in photography is composition.  How does the photographer choose what elements to include in the image, and how will these elements be combined?  I haven’t written a post in this space yet that specifically covers the topic of composition, but it’s on my list to write and publish soon.  This vital aspect of photography does use some “rules”, such as the Rule of Thirds, Leading Lines, Framing Elements, Point of View, Foreground/Background, and Symmetry and Patterns.  Rules, of course, can be programmed into an AI so that the machine can emulate the way humans create.  But in photographic composition, the “rules” are really just guidelines for getting started.  A good photographer knows when to break the rules for artistic impact.

Even the dumbest devices are capable of generating images.  Security cameras can capture images that we would consider to be rudimentary documentary photographs.  Given long enough, a security camera might accidentally capture what we would consider to be a good street photography image, because after capturing millions of dull scenes, sooner or later the camera will catch a random alignment of interesting elements.  It’s like thousands of monkeys typing random characters: given enough time, one of them will coincidentally type out a Shakespeare sonnet or even a full play.  As wearable computing devices become more pervasive, many people’s lives will be documented in real-time via the capture of millions of images.  Some of these may be interesting to their friends and perhaps the general public.  A few may even have artistic value.  But true artistry isn’t characterized by coincidence.

I don’t doubt that eventually we will get to the point where machines can create images as good as much of what humans can create.  I think we’ll get there, but it will take a long, long time.  And in the meantime, the role of photographer as artist, experimenter, and interpreter of the world around us will continue to be central to our society’s need for communication and expression.

What do you think about the future of photography?  Will we soon see machines creating much of our imagery?  How about our good, artistic imagery?  Please share your thoughts here.

 

Camera as a Service?: A first look at Relonch’s artificial intelligence photography service

In the 150 or so years of its history, the camera has evolved rapidly as a result of the advent of new technologies, each promising to dramatically simplify the photographic process and improve the resulting images.  Just within my lifetime, there have been major upheavals via the introductions of the Kodak Instamatic, the Polaroid SX-70, and of course digital photography.  So perhaps it was inevitable that someone would develop an AI (artificial intelligence) to make photography as simple as pushing a single button.

A company called Relonch (https://relonch.com/) is developing such a system now.  Sometime in 2018, they expect to roll out a Camera as a Service for $99 per month.  You get a loaner of a brightly colored Relonch 291 camera (manufactured by Samsung), with a fixed focal length lens and only a single button, which is used to take the picture.  It doesn’t even have an LCD screen to review your images.  The purported value of the subscription price, of course, is not derived from the camera hardware, but rather from the service.  For this lofty price, your camera transmits your image files to Relonch, who then use algorithms to analyze and process the files.  The next day, they send the processed images that they consider to be your best photos back to your mobile device of choice.

Relonch 291
The Relonch 291 camera

The concept here is that most people are confused by all the settings on their camera, even if it’s a fairly simple point-and-shoot device, so their photos rarely come out the way they envisioned them.  Instead, let them use a simple camera with just a single button, but employ AI techniques to post-process the best images to make them look closer to the way the user intended.

I haven’t tried the camera and its wraparound service yet (the company’s headquarters and showroom are in Palo Alto, near to where I live, so perhaps I can do so soon), but based only on their description of the concept I share my thoughts here.

  1. Will users pay $1200 per year for this service?  I’m skeptical as to whether there is a broad market for the service at this price point.  “Serious” photographers, that is professional and enthusiast amateurs, already know how to use the manual controls on our cameras and enjoy the process of capturing images and enhancing them during post-processing to achieve the final results we want.  Are there enough users who don’t know how to use their cameras but are still willing to pay so much for better images?  Time will tell.
  2. Are people willing to leave the choice of which images they receive up to a software algorithm?  I wouldn’t want someone else, even a top professional photographer, deciding which of my images I get to see and permanently deleting the rest.  And I certainly wouldn’t want an AI to make this decision for me.
  3. Are users okay with waiting a day to see and share their images?  We’ve gotten pretty spoiled as a consumer class.  We expect instant gratification, and ever since the first Polaroid cameras came out in the 1940s, photographers have been able to see their images right away.  Waiting a day may not fly.
  4. Do people really want their photography to be mechanized?  For its whole history, photography has seen its reputation tarnished when compared to other visual art media because a part of this art form includes the use of a mechanical device, the camera.  Just as a great painter creates her art through her vision and her technique, so does a great photographer.  The gear we use is only incidental to the quality of the images we create.  I fear that by taking the craft out of the process and substituting an AI for the artist’s vision, the Relonch service will further degrade photography as an art form.  And let’s be honest here.  An AI can adjust color balance, sharpness, clarity, vibrance, and exposure to improve a raw image, but it can’t determine how to crop or selectively adjust parts of the image to make it artistically pleasing or to give it a story to tell.  And most important of all, no amount of post-processing can turn a poorly composed or an uninteresting image into one worth looking at.  An AI may soon be able to drive our cars from Point A to Point B, be we’re a long way from having an algorithm that can create true visual fine art.  I’ll leave you with the words of master landscape photographer Ansel Adams: “There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”

What do you think of the Camera as a Service concept?  Valuable evolution of photography that will bring its benefits to a wider range of humanity, or expensive gimmick that will degrade the artistic worth of the medium of photography?  Please share your thoughts here.