State of the Art: How Google Photos Became a Perfect Jukebox for Our Memories

Google Photos, introduced in 2015, has become one of the most emotionally resonant pieces of technology today. It is also shaping our narratives along the way.

The first time Google Photos made me cry, it was with a sucker punch.

Google’s computers can recognize faces, even as they age over time. Photos also seems to understand the tone and emotional valence of human interaction, things like smiles, giggles, frowns, tantrums, dances of joy and even snippets of dialogue like “happy birthday!” or “good job!” The resulting montage, synced to a swelling Hollywood score, mixed obvious highlights — birthdays, school plays — with dozens of ordinary moments of childhood bliss.

This is what I mean about a sucker punch: Who expects software to make them cry? Images on Instagram and Snapchat may move you regularly, but Google Photos is not social media; it is personal media, a service begun three years ago primarily as a database to house our growing collections of private snaps — and a service run mostly by machines, not by other humans posting and Liking stuff.

With its heavy focus on artificially intelligent curation, Google Photos suggests the dawning of a new age of personalized robot historian. The trillions of images we are all snapping will become the raw material for algorithms that will curate memories and construct narratives about our most intimate human experiences. In the future, the robots will know everything about us — and they will tell our stories.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before fretting about the sci-fi tomorrow, it’s worth marveling at the basic utility of Google Photos today. Tech companies have been trying to create ways to manage digital photos ever since we began ditching film. Most efforts have failed; the better our portable cameras get, the more photos we take, and the more photos we take, the less able we all are to make sense of the stash.

“With the invention of the smartphone, there was nothing that humans did, absolutely nothing, that they didn’t also make an image of,” said Martin Hand, a sociologist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and the author of “Ubiquitous Photography,” an academic inquiry into the blessed problem of too many photos. “But that brought about its own problems — it started to get overwhelming.”

More than a decade ago, the tech world hit on one partial solution to picture overload: Make images social. Through services like Flickr, then Facebook and Instagram, we tried to curate our images by getting others to do it for us. The best photos of you were the ones that were ranked highly in your social feed; the worst were the ones you didn’t post.

But social media created another set of problems — there was a fear-of-missing out, a sense of performative anxiety, loneliness and an erosion of privacy. “There was a sense in which because everything was public, young people had to constantly curate the idea of themselves in public,” said Mr. Hand.

Its reimagined service would do three things: Offer nearly limitless storage for your photos essentially free (you can pay more to have your images stored in higher-resolution sizes). It put them in the cloud, so they could be accessed anywhere. And, crucially, Photos would lean on Google’s famed A.I. to address what it saw as the key problem of the smartphone era — the fact that we all take photos but rarely look at them.

“We noticed that you would never relive or reminisce about any of these moments,” said Anil Sabharwal, the Google vice president who led the team that built Photos, and still runs it. “You would go on this beautiful vacation, you’d take hundreds of beautiful photos, years would pass, and you would never look at any of them.”

When it started in 2015, Google Photos brought immediate relief. For instance, face recognition made sharing pictures automatic. Now, when I take a photo of my kids, Google recognizes them and shares those photos with my wife; her photos are shared with me. Incredibly, instantly, without thinking, we each have a complete collection of the children’s photos, and any anxiety about keeping them secure has vanished.

Then there are Google’s daily prompts to reminisce. It’s difficult to overstate how good Google’s machines are at mining your collection to find new stuff to awe you. In one series, called Then and Now, it will find pictures of the same person, or groups of people, in similar poses at two different time periods: Your children on the first day of school this year versus last year, or you in front of the Empire State Building 10 years ago and today.

I worry, given all this, about how A.I.-curated memories are shaping our narratives about ourselves. I think of Samara and children like her: how she will one day watch videos like the one Google produced of her, and she will come to certain conclusions about her childhood only because a for-profit, ad-supported tech company’s machines made choices about what sort of scenes to show and what to hide.

At the moment, there is no calamity here: Google Photos’ videos are sunny and bright. But if history is about who tells your story, Photos pushes us into a new realm.

The machines, now, are increasingly making sense of our human world — shaping our reality in the deepest way possible, and like cameras themselves, they’re inescapable.

 

November 14, 2018

Sources: New York Times

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