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MIT’s new tool erases anything (or anyone) from old photos

The reality distortion field is real, and it’s getting better every day.

MIT’s new tool erases anything (or anyone) from old photos
[Source Photo: Tim Bogdanov/Unsplash]

We’re all guilty of the Crop. You know, that group photo where you look so good that–sorry bestie, apologies grandma, see ya, ex–you carefully crop the other person out.

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But what if there was a tool that could erase people and things automatically–a magic wand that could do hours of imperfect Photoshop work in an instant? Now, thanks to an MIT Media Lab project led by Matt Groh, that tool is real–if still imperfect.

[Screenshot: Deep Angel]
Dubbed Deep Angel, it’s an AI that lives inside a simple-to- use website, which will scan photos you upload, or even your Instagram feed, for people, dogs, cats, snowboards, bowls, buses, traffic lights, pizzas, and teddy bears, to name a few, and automatically erase those things from your photos, according to your wishes.

As an image-conscious millennial, I fed my own Instagram feed into the machine in an attempt to improve my past. For as confusing as AI can be, Groh’s team has built a remarkably simple front-end interface to control it. In one column, you select what you’d like to remove from your photos, and in the right column, you select your source material.

I choose “cars.” And as I type in the URL of my Instagram feed, I consider the wide-ranging implications. Of course, I could do these tasks myself with Photoshop, but an AI opens the door for mindless automation, and a resulting scale. On an internet that never forgets, a tool like Deep Angel could help delete someone from your social history, like that person never even entered your life. And in a world increasingly controlled by authoritarian leaders, a tool like Deep Angel could erase bits of history–like a propaganda machine that can reach back into photographic time.

Luckily, perhaps, Deep Angel isn’t nearly so sophisticated yet. It seems to error out when sucking in my whole feed, as if the girders of the AI have been bent, then snapped, under the weight of countless photos of what I cooked for dinner.

Instead, I grab images one at a time. Can it delete a McLaren with an overzealous black and white filter? Indeed!

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[Photo: courtesy of the author]
What about a spoon? Hmm. Good enough.

[Photo: courtesy of the author]
What about that staged family photo you were less than enthused to be in? Dang!

[Photo: courtesy of the author]
How about that guy in your life who you just can’t seem to shake? Whoa! MAGIC!

[Photo: courtesy of the author]
In my testing, I found that Deep Angel has a tendency to nuke photos, often leaning toward complete ruination rather than coy manipulation. But of course, like all AI, these systems will continue to get better. It’s why Adobe is using more and more AI in its own products.

Soon, you really will be able to say “delete Mark from all my photos,” and preserve those moments as otherwise pristine photographic memories. But much like a few torches were able to burn down the Library of Alexandria–the greatest collection of papyrus scrolls on the ancient world we can now never recover–so too will a few smart machines be able to scrub and rewrite the expansive digital reality we know as the internet.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day

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