‘You have a new memory’. That’s the notification which popped up on my phone this morning on the way to work. The memory, it turned out, was just a few days old: a set of photos from our family holiday in the Isles of Scilly.
The photos app on the phone, which quietly uploads every image I take to the cloud, had acted in the name of automation: it had created a folder of shots from the trip, arranged them in chronological order, generated a map showing their point of origin, and edited them into a video for good measure.
None of this is news to the tech-savvy traveller, of course, but like much of what my phone does these days, it reminded me of the author Arthur C Clarke’s dictum that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’.
The magic here is artificial intelligence (AI), which analysed the content of the images, sifting the salvageable ones from the digital detritus, that ‘cloudfill’ of duds growing at a rate that is almost as alarming as the tide of trash threatening the real world.
That one of my wife and daughter in front of a DHC-6 Twin Otter on the runway of St Mary’s Airport? I snapped three versions before a stern-faced official ordered me to move to a safe part of the apron. The first shot was too close to the plane, the second too far away. The third, however, was in the Goldilocks zone, which the AI worked out for itself.
More remarkable still was its selection of an image of my son holding a still-warm egg filched from beneath a disgruntled chicken. Hoping to catch the moment, I took a dozen shots in the early-morning sunshine of that farmer’s field. Just two of them are anything but rotten, but once again my confident assistant chose wisely.
The AI didn’t quite read my mind, though. Before it alerted me to the existence of the folder it had so diligently made, I had already created an album of my favourite shots; although there is overlap between the two selections, I’m rather relieved to report that it amounts to just a handful of photos.
Not telepathic then, but oh so clever, and getting smarter by the day. And yet that Orwellian notification, announced by a familiar, faintly tyrannical ding, prompted me to reflect on what we should, rather than could, outsource as this sort of technology becomes ever more capable.
The explosion of images from our travels has already led to a rise in a phenomenon known as ‘digital amnesia’, according to researchers from Oxford University: perversely, the very ease with which we take pictures on our phones results in shallow memories of the experiences they reflect.
If you want to remember something for longer, the researchers suggest sketching it instead (a much more strenuous workout for the brain than the snap-happy pursuit of a selfie). But given that 50% of a trip with small children consists of crowd control, I can’t see too many opportunities for settling down with pad and pen.
For me, the convenience of digital photography outweighs concerns about my dwindling powers of recall. But I do think we sacrifice something rather precious when we automate the act of curation, allowing an algorithm to choose the pics rather than agonising over it ourselves when we come home.
It’s not a question of competence; the machines are learning, fast. Within years, perhaps months, my app will become so sophisticated that it can instantly compile an album that a disinterested observer finds easier on the eye than my own efforts. It’s a question of meaning.
When I pick the photos, I’m not just assessing them for their aesthetic merit, but also consciously or unconsciously shaping a story. To borrow a phrase from the literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall, we’re storytelling animals. That’s how we understand events. That’s how we understand the world. That’s how we understand ourselves. Don’t know about you, but I’m not ready to outsource that just yet.