Just How Smart Should Our Cameras Be?

March 16, 2018 - 5 minutes read

It’s always been of paramount importance for tech companies to strike that fine balance between privacy and innovation. In the case of cameras, we want to control what they record or take a picture of (obviously). Clips, a new camera from Google asks us to trust it with this decision.

It also gives us a deeper look into the possibilities of artificial intelligence (AI) development, possibilities that may be implemented in phones soon.

Do You See What I See?

Do you have something blocking the camera on your computer? If you don’t, you probably know someone who employs this privacy-preserving technique. You’ve probably also wondered at least once whether your phone camera or mic was operating without your knowledge.

It’s hard not to notice that smartphone cameras have gotten… well, a little smarter recently. Just a few years ago, there were no augmented reality (AR) or AI capabilities. Now, you can find a plethora of apps utilizing these technologies. We live in interesting times — it’s not unusual for us to come across an article about Elon Musk condemning the dangers of AI on a news app that used AI to curate it for us.

From Observing to Understanding

While a camera, the $249 Google Clips is really the San Francisco development juggernaut’s latest foray into AI. It aims to capture special moments and future memories automatically. With machine learning, it decides what’s interesting enough to capture. Besides single pictures, it also has the ability to do a burst shot that produces something akin to a gif.

You can clip it to your bike helmet during an adventure or to your fence when you’re playing football with your family. You can also leave it on the table during a dinner with friends and have AI-selected memories at the end of the occasion. The AI also identifies recurring faces; the more often it sees a face, the more opportunity it sees for a relevant photograph. This probably helps capture what’s important to you when you’re at a crowded place like an amusement park, but it doesn’t sound very intuitive when you consider a situation like visiting with distant relatives or friends. You also have the option of manually taking photos with a button on the device or remotely through your phone, but that’s really just an auxiliary function.

Smile, You’re on Camera!

If you think the Clips sounds like the perfect spying device, don’t worry, Google is aware. “We spent a lot of time thinking about privacy, and making sure this was a device people would actually want,” explains Eva Snee. She is the head of research on Clips-human interaction. “What we learned was that cameras don’t creep people out when they’re used deliberately and the person is part of the process.”

That’s why it tries to address this with a multi-pronged approach. First, the camera usually remains disconnected from the Internet. Second, you need your phone to view or save the accumulated content. When in operation, it will flash a white LED to let you know that recording could be in session. Lastly, no audio is recorded.

All of these measures are great for the Clips, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that this technology could definitely come to other devices like phones or security cameras soon. It would appear that a new type of surveillance, one that is refined through AI, is on the horizon. In an age where many of us already suspect that Alexa is listening or our phones are recording, it’s vital that all tech companies bring this forward-thinking approach for privacy safeguards to all devices. We all want to see the future, but we don’t want it to gaze back at us.

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