The disturbing acceptance of Google’s new ‘smart’ camera

2nd March 2018

n the reviews that rolled out recently for Google’s new Clips smart camera, there were the rote things that you’d expect in all tech reviews: what was good, what was bad, and, inevitably, whether or not you should buy it. There was, however, a key idea conspicuously absent: whether or not the product should exist at all.

The pitch for the Google Clips is it’s a camera that sits off to the side in a room and automatically captures the kinds of candid shots that one never really plans for — the most common examples cited being some random happening involving one’s kids or pets. Instead of mere serendipity, however, the camera uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to try and guess when to best take a shot.

Reviews, perhaps unsurprisingly, haven’t been great. The technology to take pictures in a smart way with satisfying results simply doesn’t exist yet, largely because determining what makes a good shot is still a profoundly human, subjective thing. But perhaps a product with such obvious flaws is cause for concern for reasons more significant than the release of yet another disappointing gadget. Instead, it appears that in rarely questioning whether a piece of tech should have been released at all, we are unwittingly become guinea pigs for tech, and inadvertent cheerleaders for things that, in the aggregate, end up making things worse.

After all, despite the middling reviews, the Clips is something more like a proof of concept, a preliminary first step towards more and more sophisticated versions of these kinds of products. The failure of the device to be able to do what it says on the box — while also costing $250 — suggests that Google knows this is a limited product with limited appeal.

What’s the point then? In part, to position Google as an innovative, even family-friend company. But it’s also to test out the concept, gather data, and help perfect the idea of a “smart camera” for broader applications. It’s thus worth questioning what gets carried along in the cutesy design and marketing of a product like Clips. Cameras powered by artificial intelligence will inevitably be used to superpower surveillance. In an age in which facial recognition technology is already being used to apprehend criminals, a smarter camera from one of the world’s largest companies is something impossible to see as merely fun.



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