If you’ve ever been to Italy’s leaning Tower of Pisa, or similar tourist attractions, you’ve probably attempted to take that quintessential holding-up-the-tower photo. It’s a tricky shot to nail because you have to position yourself at just the right angle and just the right distance. And it could mean several takes before you capture just the perfect image.

Thanks to Google, you may never have to endure this sort of (first-world) struggle again. You probably only need a single photo because the tech giant has an AI-based tool known as the Magic Editor that is now available in Google Photos on the Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro. 

The Magic Editor uses generative AI along with AI processing techniques to help people make complex photo edits easily without the need of professional skills. It goes beyond lightening and brightening photos, although that’s part of it. In the case of the Tower of Pisa photo, you could reposition yourself, enlarge the tower, remove strangers from the background and even fill backgrounds.

But why stop there? Google says you can even change the color of the sky, if you please.

Spot the differences from the far left photo and the far right photo. What did the Magic Editor change? In this photo, the child was repositioned to be more in the center of the photo. To do so, the app filled in parts of the bench and balloons that were never actually shown in the original photograph.


“If you’re trying to get the perfect photo from your time at a popular waterfall, you could remove the bag strap you forgot to take off,” said CEO Sundar Pichai, who first unveiled the feature in Google’s developer conference in May.

Pichai explained that you could also make the sky brighter and less cloudy, “and for a finishing touch, relocate and change the scale of your subject so they’re perfectly lined up under the waterfall.”

According to Pichai, 1.7 billion images are edited on Google Photos every single month. Launching an AI-powered editor that allows people to quickly alter any photo makes logical sense as a next step and a clever marketing campaign.

“As a consumer, I am really excited about these new tools — there are so many times when I wish I could edit my images a little bit, especially when I take pictures of my little kids and they have a hard time standing still and looking at the camera,” said Anton Korinek, professor of economics at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and a researcher at the Oxford Center for the Governance of AI.

The Magic Editor should undoubtedly open up exciting photo editing possibilities, but it also raises questions about the authenticity and credibility of online images. Google’s new Pixel phones underscore the promise and the peril of AI. On one hand, it offers new ways for people to express themselves creatively and conveniently through digital media. On the other hand, it comes with social implications such as normalizing present idealized versions of themselves online. More ominously, it can pose serious threats to people’s (already fragile) trust of online content. 

What if someone uses the Magic Editor to manipulate their professional photos in a way that deceives others? What if someone uses it to create fake news or propaganda? What if someone uses it to erase or distort their memories or history? How can we trust what we see on social media when AI can easily alter it? 

It’s no secret that photographs can already be edited by downloading apps such as Photoshop or FaceTune. That’s been done for a long time and has come with its own set of implications. But the Magic Editor simplifies a task that once took hours on, say, Photoshop and turns it into something supremely simple — literally putting it at your fingertips. For instance, to resize a person, you just need to pinch, or if you want to reposition, you just tap and drag. 

CNET’s Patrick Holland used the Magic Editor to replace the ground with bricks. There weren’t any bricks at this park, but it does make the photo look better.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Pixel 8 AI: The Magic Editor and beyond 

To be fair, the Magic Editor’s capabilities are currently limited on the Pixel 8 series. CNET Managing Editor Patrick Holland tested the editing tool on a handful of photos for his Pixel 8 review. In one photo, he removed a giant rock from the ground, and then went on to change the flooring from astro turf to brick – all from Google Photos, all within a matter of seconds.

However, he concluded that a majority of the Magic Editor-generated photos have flaws, and the tool currently is in a more experimental phase than some of the other ones Google debuted on the Pixel 8.

Here is the original unedited photo that Holland took of CNET’s Theo Liggians and Tara Brown jumping off a rock.

Patrick Holland/CNET

“I can usually spot the differences between photos I applied it on versus unedited images.” Holland wrote in his review. “The way the AI tries to fill in the background usually results in something looking off.”

Google admitted this too. “We know there might be times when the result isn’t exactly what you imagined,” said Shimrit Ben-Yair, vice president of Google Photos and Google One, in a blog post. “Your feedback will be important in helping us improve it over time so you can get the best edits possible.”

Still, as Google continues to refine its AI technology, it will become increasingly difficult (if not impossible) to differentiate between an unedited photo and an edited one.   

In fact, the tech giant is marketing AI as one of the unique selling points of its Pixel 8 phones, even if AI has long been an integral part of the experience for tasks such as voice recognition and image processing. 

“Pixel is designed to bring hardware and software together with AI at the center to deliver simple, fast and smart experiences,” Rick Osterloh, Google’s senior vice president of devices and services, at its fall event this October.

Apart from the Magic Editor, the Pixel 8 ships with a suite of AI features designed to enhance the daily lives of their owners. Call Screen, the feature where Google Assistant answers calls on your behalf to help you avoid unwanted robocalls or scammers, received an upgrade. The Assistant’s voice now sounds more natural, and it can understand more context from the call.

The Audio Magic Eraser uses AI to automatically quiet unwanted sounds in videos you record. But perhaps the biggest addition is Best Take. This AI tool lets you face swap from a series of photos so you can produce an image where everyone is looking at the camera and smiling, if that’s what you wanted.

The Pixel 8’s Best Take uses AI to help you swap someone’s head from one image to another. There are a number of limitations, but it works quite well.

James Martin/CNET

The normalization of fake content

False imagery and disinformation are already a pervasive problem that plagues various social media platforms. In recent years, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok have each been criticized for allowing the spread of misleading or false information on their sites, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 US presidential election. Some of these platforms have taken steps to label or remove such content. But they have also faced backlash from users and lawmakers who accuse them of censorship or bias.

“From a public policy point of view, there is no question that these tools [Magic Editor] will make it easier to produce disinformation by malicious actors,” said Korinek. “I don’t know the technical details yet, but I do hope that Google will add watermarks to images that have been edited to make it easier to verify what’s fake and what’s real.”

Do I expect the Magic Editor to be at the center of some disinformation campaign as large as the ones during the presidential election? Probably not.  

But Google is paving the way for more inauthentic content online with native editing tools that are powerful enough to create an image entirely different from the original photo. Google has not only given us the tools to perfect reality but is normalizing the practice. Suddenly, we’re living in a world where every photo can be altered or manipulated in seconds – and I wish it weren’t so.

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