Google’s new Magic Editor pushes us toward AI-sophisticated counterfeiting

One of the most impressive demos at Google I/O started with a photo of a woman in front of a waterfall. A presenter on stage tapped the woman, picked her up and moved her to the other side of the frame, the app automatically filling in the space where she once stood. Then they tapped the overcast sky, and it immediately blossomed into a brighter cloudless blue. Within seconds, the image was transformed.

The AI-powered tool, called the Magic Editor, certainly lived up to its name during the demo. It’s the kind of tool that Google has been working on for years. It already has a number of AI-powered image editing features in its arsenal, including the Magic Eraser, which lets you quickly remove people or objects from the background of an image. But this type of tool takes it a step further by letting you change the content – and possibly the meaning – of a photo in much more significant ways.

The Magic Editor transforms the photo in seconds.
GIF: Google

While it’s clear this tool isn’t flawless — and doesn’t have a firm release date for it just yet — Google’s end goal is clear: to make photo perfecting as easy as tapping or dragging something on your screen. The company markets the tool as a way to “do complex edits without professional editing tools,” letting you harness the power of AI to pick out and transform a part of your photo. That includes the ability to enhance the sky, move and scale subjects, and remove parts of an image with just a few taps.

Google’s Magic Editor tries to pack all the steps required to perform similar operations in a program like Photoshop into one package – or so it appears in the demo. In Photoshop, for example, you’re stuck using the Content-Aware Move Tool (or any of the other methods of your choice) to pick up and move a subject in an image. Even then, the photo still might not look quite right, which means you’ll need to use other tools, like the Clone Stamp tool or maybe even the Spot Healing Brush, to fix leftover artifacts or a background mismatch. It’s not the most complicated process ever, but as with most professional creative tools, there’s a definite learning curve for people new to the program.

I’m all for Google making photo editing tools free and more accessible, given that Photoshop and some of the other image editing apps out there are expensive and quite unintuitive. But putting powerful and incredibly easy-to-use image-editing tools in the hands of, well, just about anyone who downloads Google Photos can change the way we edit and view photos. There’s long been debate about how far a photo can be edited before it’s no longer a photo, and Google’s tools are bringing us closer to a world where we tap every image to perfect it, reality or not.

Samsung recently drew attention to the power of AI “enhanced” photos with “Space Zoom”, a feature that lets you take incredible photos of the moon on newer Galaxy devices. In March, a Reddit user tried to use Space Zoom on an almost unusable image of the moon and found that Samsung appeared to be adding craters and other patches that weren’t really there. Not only does this run the risk of creating a ‘fake’ image of the moon, but it also leaves real space photographers in a strange place as they’ve spent years mastering the art of capturing of the night sky, only for the public to be often presented with counterfeits.

A series of edits with Google’s Magic Editor.
Image: Google

To be fair, there are a ton of similar photography-enhancing features built into smartphone cameras. As my colleague Allison Johnson points out, mobile photography already falsifies many things, whether it’s applying filters or blurring a photo, and manipulated images are nothing new. But Google’s Magic Editor could make a more substantial form of forgery easier and more appealing. In his blog post explaining the toolGoogle makes it seem like we’re all looking for perfection, noting that the Magic Editor “gives more control over the final look and feel of your photo” while giving you the chance to fix a missed opportunity that makes a picture would look like it is the best.

Call me kind of a weird photo purist, but I’m not a fan of editing a photo in a way that would alter my memory of an event. If I took a photo of a wedding and the sky was cloudy, I wouldn’t think of trading it in for something better. Maybe – just maybe – I might consider moving things or amplifying the sky in a photo I post on social media, but even that seems a bit disingenuous. But again, that’s just me. I still saw a lot of people using the Magic Editor to perfect their photos for social media, adding to the larger conversation about what exactly we should consider a photo and whether or not people should be required to disclose that.

Google calls its Magic Editor “experimental technology” that will be available later this year for “select” Pixel phones before rolling out to everyone else. If Google is already adding AI-powered image editing tools to Photos, it seems only a matter of time before smartphone makers integrate these one-tap tools, such as sky replacement or the ability to move a subject, directly into a phone’s camera software. Sometimes the beauty of a photo is its imperfection. It seems that smartphone manufacturers are trying to push us further and further away from that idea.