Stephen Lam / Reuters
Onstage this morning at Facebook’s annual developer conference, Mark Zuckerberg used the image of an ordinary coffee cup — displayed on the gigantic screen above him — to demonstrate Facebook’s new in-app camera, which uses superior artificial intelligence to recognize objects and then seamlessly manipulate them. Facebook’s software will know it’s a mug — just tap on the coffee and a toolbar will pop up with relevant effects like a cloud of steam. Or, said Zuckerberg, “you can add a second coffee mug, so it looks like you’re not having breakfast alone.”
Without naming his muse — Snapchat — Zuckerberg told the crowd of thousands that Facebook is ready to take augmented reality mainstream, to make it accessible to anyone with a smartphone. Onstage, Zuckerberg ran through the primary use cases for Facebook’s camera, including adding digital objects, a la Pokémon Go, or the ability to “enhance digital objects like your home or your face.” Mike Schroepfer, Facebook's chief technology officer, offered a more seasonal example: “Let’s say I took a wonderful vacation photo and a windsurfer rudely interrupted my view.” With Facebook’s camera, the offending surfer could be easily edited out, Schroepfer explained, using a slide screen to show just how easy it was to rewrite vacation history.
The examples sounded as innocuous as could be, until you considered how they might play out in the real world. In the keynote, Facebook floated right past questions like: Can Facebook’s camera erase a man on dry land from a photograph as easily as it can a windsurfer? Are there realistic-looking items Facebook can instantly insert into a photo? In other words, just how much will people be able to doctor the photos that appear in their feeds? And will the people who see them know they’ve been manipulated?
Facebook didn’t demonstrate this trick onstage, but during an earlier interview the company showed BuzzFeed News how its radical camera could take an ordinary photo of a person and manipulate their facial expression to make them smile, or frown, or display whatever other emotion the smartphone-holder desired. Back in December, The Verge warned that artificial intelligence was already making it easy to make fake images and fake videos, pointing to a startup called SmileVector that can make any celebrity smile.
To be clear, many of the effects available now — like breakfast sharks flying around Zuckerberg’s cereal bowl — are clearly cartoons. Facebook declined to comment on the record, but the company's Camera Effects Platform is still in closed beta: Effects have to be submitted and reviewed by Facebook before being shared. Each effect also has to adhere to Facebook’s policies and terms governing what’s offensive or illegal. The company monitors how effects are being used and will update accordingly.
But soon enough, these tools will soon be distributed to nearly 2 billion users, with frictionless ease. And, as Zuckerberg said many times onstage, they’re still primitive. That's an interesting posture for a company with a major fact-checking problem that has seen time and again the way its products can be used to foster hate speech, violence, and division. It's worth noting that a recent report about Silicon Valley re-engineering journalism traced fake news opportunists back to Zuckerberg’s (seemingly benign-sounding) goal from 2014 to build a personalized paper.
We don’t know how Facebook Camera and the products built on it will be used in the real world until they're, well, out in the real world, in the pockets of a billion-plus people — some of whom are assholes (or Macedonian teens). The people who use technology are, all too often, more creative than those who make it: They find new and ingenious ways to hack the algorithm, evade the censors, further their agendas, and make certain topics go viral. Facebook’s new camera effects could very well end up being an innocuous way to make breakfast fun and fix your vacation pictures — or it could mean we’ll soon be a nation divided over fake photos instead of fake news. In the meantime, that steam sure is cool.