Imagination is more important than knowledge.

6th November 2020

Google Has A Strange New Photo Platform

If you’re in your mid-30s (or perhaps a little older), you’ll remember the days when photographs were things that you flipped through by hand rather than things you flicked through on a computer. Your parents used to keep photographs in little paper wallets or leather-backed albums and get them out to show family and friends whenever people visited your home. If a picture was especially good or significant, it might even get framed and placed somewhere prominent in your home. You might even have a few photos in frames in your home today – but the photos probably didn’t start out as a form of physical media.

Back when photos still existed as hard-copy only products, photography was expensive. Even if you bought a cheap, disposable camera with terrible fuzzy picture quality, you’d still need to pay to get the film developed if you wanted to actually see what you’d taken pictures of. There wasn’t even a preview mode, so if your finger had been covering the lens for all twenty or thirty pictures, you were stuck with them! Digital photography changed all that, and before long digital photography combined with the internet to make traditional photography feel old-fashioned. Nobody needed photo albums anymore because everything could be stored and displayed digitally online. By the time phone camera technology advanced so far that even digital cameras became obsolete to the average user, we’d started taking and uploading just under two billion photographs to the internet every day. 

Photographic images are now everywhere, but ‘real’ photographs aren’t. As much as we might tell ourselves that we’re going to sort through our phone pictures at some point in the distant future and send them off for printing, most of us never get around to doing it. The photos either stay on our camera until we upgrade our phones and lose them, or they get downloaded into a folder on your laptop, which you never look at. Either way, it’s not great for preserving memories. Google has apparently decided that the time is right to do something about that trend. For a small subscription price, Google will keep an eye on the photographs you upload, print a few of them out for you, and have them delivered to your home address. There’s just one small catch – you won’t have any control over which pictures the service identifies and prints.

Employing people to manually check over every single picture that a user takes with their smartphone would cost an astronomical amount of money and make the service unprofitable. Instead, Google is using an artificial intelligence program to do the hard work and generate the results. Using a complex system of calculations that are comparable to the obscenely advanced mathematics that goes into the design of online slots games, the AI will evaluate all of your photographs for the month, decide which are the most aesthetically pleasing, and package them up for you without a human becoming involved at any point in the process. The obvious drawback to this is that potentially, the results you get from the AI are likely to be just as random as the results you’ll get when you spin the reels of Fluffy Favourites. Extending the metaphor further, there will be occasions when you feel like you’ve hit the jackpot, by which we mean you’ll have been sent the perfect picture, but there will be occasions when you feel like your money has been wasted. That’s also a feeling that’s familiar to many a regular visitor to online slots websites.

Google insists that the process won’t be as random as it has the potential to be. They’ve started offering the service, which has an introductory subscription price of $6.99 per month, after the successful completion of extensive trials, which began earlier in 2020. The company insists that feedback from those involved in the trial has been taken on board and implemented to its fullest, and they also say that their AI is so advanced that it’s able to receive input from users about preferences. If the subscriber would rather their ten monthly photos were of human beings, or pets, or landscapes, the AI should accept that instruction and filter out everything else. Alternatively, if you trust the AI’s judgment and you’d like to get the ten photos it believes are best from across your range, it can do that for you too. All of the photos are postcard-sized. In practical terms, that means they’re four inches by six inches.

Users will have the opportunity to monitor the AI’s progress if they so desire. So long as they log into their accounts before the monthly delivery date falls due, they can manually edit the selected pictures, choose different printing effects, and even add borders or frames at additional cost if they choose to do so. Should the user forget to do that, however, the ten AI-selected prints will be sent with no eligibility for a refund. Users can manually skip months in which they’ve taken no pictures, though, and they can also cancel their subscription with no associated fees or charges.

Based on the description of the new service, it sounds very similar to the “premium print service” that the company launched last week, but costs one dollar less. The reasons for the difference in pricing are unknown at the time of writing, and it might even be that the two products have now been amalgamated. We’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, this might be a great way of taking photographs out of the digital environment and putting them back in the real world for many of us who simply don’t have time to take care of such things ourselves. As you’ll know if you’ve ever done it, it might be one thing to look at a picture on a screen, but it’s quite another to hold it in your hand and feel connected to whichever memory it represents. No matter how far technology progresses, there is and always will be a time for ‘real’ photos. If you don’t want to create your own or you don’t have the facility to do so in your home town, this might be an option that you’d like to consider.

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