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Google’s new phone uses ‘Magic Editor’ AI tool to radically alter photos

The Pixel 8 Pro can add and remove image elements, raising questions about their authenticity

Google Pixel 8 Pro
A potential buyer snaps a photo of the Google Pixel 8 Pro in New York; October 4, 2023.ED JONES (AFP)
Isabel Rubio

The Magic Editor on the Google Pixel 8 Pro smartphone seems to be just that — magic. It allows you to effortlessly edit photos in seconds, whether it’s adjusting the color of the sky, removing unwanted intruders, resizing elements or even altering people’s faces. This generative artificial intelligence (AI) tool has the potential to transform photo editing, but it also poses certain risks and ethical concerns about the authenticity of our images.

Most smartphones have photo editing capabilities to adjust color, brightness and contrast. But the Google Pixel 8 goes much further — users can now add or remove elements from their images. Jennifer S. Mills, a psychologist at York University in Canada, says people have always preferred the most flattering photos of themselves, even before photo editing became popular. “We’ve always been selective about our photos, but this new technology [the Pixel 8] is leading us away from reality. We’re now creating things that never existed,” said Mills, who has conducted several studies on the impact of social media and physical appearance on mental health.

“Remove distractions, move your subjects around, improve backgrounds and more,” says the message when you open Magic Editor for the first time. Editing options change depending on what’s in the photo. The “Sky” option adds or removes clouds and other sky elements. The “Golden Hour” option can change a gray or dull sky into a beautiful sunset. If your photo has a river or ocean, the Magic Editor suggests the “Water” option, which you can use to stylize the photo by adding currents and waves, or changing its color.

While Magic Editor can transform a dull image into a more captivating one, Google says the tool is “still in its early stages and won’t always get it right.” We used a Pixel 8 Pro to test Magic Editor and found some mistakes when we applied it to a photo of the Manzanares River in Madrid. The AI tool didn’t seem to recognize some water elements and made a few inappropriate changes.

Magic Editor suggested the “Stylize” option to change the style of certain photos with applied effects. The results sometimes resemble genuine works of art, but other times the tool adds new colors, vegetation and even snow to the image. If people are the main subject of the photo, Magic Editor will suggest a portrait mode that automatically blurs the background. This feature is like the one offered by the iPhone 15, which lets you toggle portrait mode on and off for any photo.

Magic Editor is available on the Pixel 8 Pro and for images uploaded to Google Photos, the company’s cloud-based image organization and storage service. When you select a photo, Magic Editor will initially suggest four edited images. If you don’t like any of them, more can be generated. You can also select and alter the position or size of any object in an image. For instance, you can make people in a photo larger. The results are impressive and unlike Adobe Photoshop, Magic Editor enables you to accomplish these tasks in seconds, without needing advanced photo editing skills.

Deleting people and changing faces

With the Pixel 6, Google introduced Magic Eraser, a favorite Instagrammer tool. The latest release of this tool is more sophisticated and uses AI to easily remove unwanted people or other elements. Magic Eraser will offer removal suggestions, or the user can manually select them. An especially useful function is the ability to remove unknown people in the background. The results are often astonishingly good, but sometimes leave telltale signs of photo editing.

One remarkable feature is the ability to change faces. To use it, first take several similar photos. Then select the “Best Take” feature and Magic Editor will generate different options based on your photos. It can reconstruct partially obstructed faces, open closed eyes and create different expressions like smiles and funny faces.

The “Best Take” results are truly remarkable. In most instances, it’s nearly impossible to detect any edits made to the photograph, making it challenging to distinguish between the original shot and the altered version. Users are left questioning the authenticity of their own photos. It’s too early to say whether these edited images have the potential to affect genuine memories.

The risks of image editing

Magic Editor presents dilemmas regarding the authenticity and credibility of online images. It has the potential to be used for photo manipulation and misinformation. Psychologist Claudia Pradas Gallardo says one clear risk is the disconnection from reality. “The initial purpose of photography was to faithfully depict reality. However, this objective has increasingly become distorted, mirroring the evolution of the images themselves. Nowadays, filters manipulate features like nose size and lip fullness, apps alter body shapes, and there’s even an option to select the best smile from a photo carousel and apply it to an image.”

Pradas believes that such tools have the potential to impact users’ self-esteem. “It’s becoming harder to bridge the gap between what we see in the mirror and the images in our photo galleries. This leads to an effect known as dysmorphia.” Using filters and other photo editing tools, individuals have the ability to create a new online image of themselves that they find more appealing. “Reality becomes a problem when we look in the mirror and see the same old face,” said Enric Soler, a professor of psychology at Spain’s Open University of Catalonia.

Adrián Gimeno, a psychologist and psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders, says these photo editing features “perpetuate what social networks and the entire image universe began decades ago — building perfect and ideal images in our minds and in the minds of others... The problem is that when we have so many ways of ‘enhancing’ ourselves, we tend to struggle with accepting and appreciating reality. This leads to a persistent sense of frustration and dissatisfaction in our lives.”

Gimeno advises Magic Editor users to enjoy it while keeping an important question in mind. “Just because something looks perfect doesn’t make it so. There is nothing wrong with putting a filter on a photo or editing it because you want to look different. But when you do it because reality is somehow painful, enhancing the image won’t help.”

Pradas says she doesn’t want to “demonize social media” or Google’s Magic Editor, but we should remember “who we are and where we come from. We’re human beings made of flesh and blood. Some of us look terrible in photos, some of us have wrinkles, gray hair, stretch marks, yellowish teeth and droopy eyes. Those are the things that make us unique. What’s truly concerning is perceiving them as negative features that we have to change.”

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