A.I. Is Changing How You See the World
By systematically distorting the images we see and create, A.I. is shifting perceptions and ultimately changing our relationship with the physical world
Earlier this year, I hiked with my family to Claigan Coral Beach on the outer edge of the Isle of Skye in Scotland. We wanted to see the impressive stretch of coral we’d seen on Google searches for the area, but instead of the pristine white beach and turquoise sea from the internet, what we found was a rather grubby stretch of crushed coral. I felt similarly when I saw the fairy pools, the crystal clear rock pools fed by small waterfalls. I used to love discovering these kinds of places, but seeing the photos online before we set off had killed any sense of wonder. It made being there feel strangely unreal, like returning to a place from your childhood only to find it smaller and shabbier than you remember.
Our impressions of the world are heavily influenced by the images we see online. Digital photography boomed with the popularization of smartphones in the early 2010s; today, Snapchat users create 3 billion snaps every day, and 3.5 billion Instagram posts are liked every day, many of them filtered and enhanced. Anyone with a smartphone can produce enhanced images that only professional photographers and retouchers could have achieved just a few years ago.
Yet photo manipulation at this scale means that rather than using photography to reflect the world around us, we are systematically distorting our record of the world. Photography increasingly serves to represent an idealized version of our lives, and this comes at a price. “We know that fake images can alter what we believe about the past, what we remember about the past and even our future intentions,” says Dr Kim Wade, a psychologist from the University of Warwick and a specialist in photography and memory. “The act of routinely enhancing images could change our perspective of the past and ultimately, our relationship with reality.”
While algorithms have always automatically enhanced the saturation and contrast of digital images, the introduction of machine learning has been a step change. Training comprising millions of images can teach camera phones to recognize what kind…