“Are you going to record some video?” said the stranger as I fiddled with my camera.
I looked up and saw that he had an amused look on his face.
“Mostly pictures,” I said, “but yea, I want to grab some video of the drones in flight.”
His smile broadened.
“The show is canceled,” he said, delivering the news with a self-satisfying grin.
“Again?” I said dropping my shoulders.
“Yup. I’m telling people that it's canceled, and they just stand there still waiting. The drones are not coming.” He shook his head.
I could see the large crowd lined up along the railings.
I pulled out my phone.
“You can check it on Google,” said the man with his mischievous smile, correctly inferring my intentions. "Nobody wants to believe me. It's canceled."
“What time did they cancel it?” I asked him.
“Eleven this morning. I didn't find out until I got here.”
Unreal. I had meant to check, just in case, but forgot about it. I couldn't hide my annoyance. I'm passionate, so it can be difficult to keep a stiff upper lip when my plans fall apart.
The man grinned and seemed to be enjoying the range of emotions going through my face as the truth of the matter dawned upon me.
I was looking forward to the darn Christmas drone show, which was supposed to take place Friday and Saturday. The Friday show had been canceled because of communication interference that made it unsafe to fly the machines. Now the Saturday one had also been canceled for the same reason.
On the way back home, the air was cold and crisp. The city is beginning to look more festive, I thought. I took a few shots to test the night sight mode of my Pixel 7 and noticed that they were sharp. I nodded and soon my outlook brightened. The bounce returned to my step now that I looked around at the bright city lights that suddenly were alive and glittering like a frosty cyberpunk dream.
The following day, I was enjoying my morning coffee, when I received a notification from the Google assistant:
Your new panoroma photo is ready…”
...or some such message.
I opened the app and to my surprise there was a panorama of two images I had taken the previous night and which the artificial intelligence (AI) assistant stitched together to make them look like a single panoramic snapshot. I just updated my phone, so I wasn’t familiar with this feature, and it took me by surprise. I know that the assistant can also apply filters to one’s images, but this panoramic creation was something else. For the AI to stitch the images correctly, it had to understand the spatial position of the images in relation to the photographer. It needed to somehow understand that when I took the picture, I was standing in the same spot and simply rotated my body position to face the adjacent direction. It then had to weld the images together in the correct order to recreate a cohesive scene. The image did contain some strange artifacts like the floating half-car in the middle of the intersection, but the result was nevertheless impressive, as you can see in the following image.
Beyond the wonderful technical wizardry behind the photographic AI assistant, there is something much bigger at work here. It is something that when it unfolds down the next five years, it will alter us as a civilization if not a species. These assistive technologies are the very tip of an AI iceberg that is now emerging in multiple sectors at breathtaking speed.
Upon receiving the panorama notification by the assistant, I felt a slight sense of uneasiness. The same uneasiness I felt when the stranger approached me at the drone show. It made me wary because even though he turned out to be extremely helpful, it also meant that the man had been checking me out, my actions, which based on our location, allowed him to deduce that I was there to "record video" of the show, and I seemed unaware of the cancellation. There was intelligent purposeful agency in his actions.
Similarly, when I saw the panorama created by the Google assistant, I realized that this AI, in some rudimentary way, had been checking me out and deducing my intentions based on my overt spatial behavior. If that’s not intelligence, then I don’t know what is.
I did feel dumb and lazy when I realized that I could've done the panorama myself. I already knew that the phone had a panorama mode, but I had not even bothered to test it. It also never occurred to me that I could stand in a street corner and use the panoramic function. I just imagined using it to take panoramic shots of the sea, mountains, or open fields but street corners? Genius! The AI not only taught me a technical skill but also a valuable artistic lesson. Step outside the lines of what is known. How’s that for augmented reality? Putting aside any questions regarding the artistic merits of the created piece, we can clearly see that these tools have the capacity to multiply our intelligence by several magnitudes. Yet…
It was intrusive, and it doesn’t take a techno-prophet to see where this is going. It inferred my likes and motivations in the realm of photography, then by keeping track of my behavior and movement in space, it proceeded to “assist” me in my photographic endeavors. Innocent and helpful enough. What else can it infer from my movements, and the stream of neuro-data it's gathering every second? I can think of many positive things that can be done with these data to augment our intelligence and understand our selves at an accelerated pace. Yet, I still wonder if there will be a point when this technology will become a hindrance or even a threat to our existence? I have a feeling that we'll find out soon enough.
So, given this potential apocalyptic threat to our very existence, will I stop using the Google AI assistant? Hell no. This new toy is a lot of fun, and I'm feeling frisky. 😸
Images by @litguru