Put on a happy face

This weekend I attended a workshop that contained a very impressive research talk by someone from Adobe. The speaker showed a picture of a little girl looking somewhat bemused. Then, using a second photograph of the same girl smiling, he demonstrated how to transform the first picture, so that the girl was now smiling.

This is harder than it might seem. The two photos were taken at different angles, with different lighting. Furthermore, to make the resulting picture work, the entire facial expression needed to be transformed, not just the mouth. For example, when we smile the shape of our lower eyelids changes. Despite all that, the algorithm got it right.

By convention, after each talk speakers took questions from the audience. Until that point, all of the questions at the workshop had been technical. But my question broke the pattern.

“After you add the smile,” I asked the speaker, “would you still call it a photograph?”

He seemed a little unprepared for the question. After a bit of thinking out loud, he said “I’d call it a Photoshopped photograph”. Which made sense, since Photoshop is an Adobe product.

But of course the issue is larger than that. Maybe there was a reason that little girl was unhappy. When we can change a facial expression in a photograph, we are rewriting history. And not in the obvious way that Stalin “disappeared” Trotsky and many others from official photos, but in a more subtle and perhaps more insidious way.

In the end it’s not really a question of technology. It’s a question of where we want to go as a society. Eventually technology will allow us to walk around seeing the entire world through a Photoshop lens, in real time. When that happens, what will we see? And what will we never see at all?

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