Upscaling and an Important Note About Photo “AI”
Because I’m a digital photography nerd, I have a lot of programs and Photoshop plugins designed to tweak photos and make them better, or, maybe more accurately, less obviously bad. One of the hot new sectors of digital photography programs is the one where “Artificial Intelligence” is employed to do all manner of things, including colorizing, editing and upscaling. Some of this is baked into Photoshop directly — Adobe has a “Neural Filters” section for this — while other companies are supplying standalone programs and plugins.
Truth be told, all of these companies have been touting “AI” for a while now. But in the last couple of iterations of these tools and programs, there’s been a real leap in… well, something, anyway. The quality of the output of these tools has become strikingly better.
As an example, I present to you the before and after picture above. The original picture on the left was a 200-pixel-wide photo of Athena as a toddler. There had been a larger version of it way back when, but I had cropped it way down for an era when monitors were 640 x 480, and then tossed or misplaced the original photo. So the blocky, blotchy low-resolution picture of my kid is the only one I have now. The picture on the right is a 4x upscaling using a program called Topaz GigaPixel AI, which takes the information from the original picture, and using “AI,” makes guesses at what the picture should look like at a higher resolution, then applies those guesses. In this case, it guessed pretty darn well.
Which is remarkable to me, because even just a couple iterations of the GigaPixel program back, it wasn’t doing that great of a job to my eye — it could smooth out jagged edges on photos just fine, but it was questionable on patterns and tended to make a hash of faces. Its primary utility was that it could do “just okay” attempts at upscaling much faster than I could do that “just okay” work on my own. This iteration of the program, however, does better than “just okay,” more frequently than not, and now does things well beyond my own skill level.
It’s still not perfect; some other pictures of Athena from this era that I upsampled didn’t quite guess her face correctly, so she didn’t look as much like she actually did at the time, and more like a generic toddler. But that generic toddler looked perfectly reasonable, and not like a machine-generated mess. That counts as an improvement.
Now, it’s important to acknowledge a thing about these new “AI”-assisted pictures, which is that they are no longer photographs. They’re something different, closer to a digital illustration than anything else. The upscaled picture of Athena here is the automated equivalent of an artist making an airbrushed painting of my kid based on a tiny old photo. It’s good, and it’s pretty accurate, and I’m glad I have a larger version of that tiny image. But it’s not a photograph anymore. It’s an illustrated guess at what a more detailed version of the photograph would have been.
Is this a problem? Outside of a courtroom, probably not. But it’s still worth remembering that the already-extremely-permeable line between photograph and illustration is now even more so. Also, if you weren’t doing so already, you should treat any “photo” you see as an illustration until and unless you can see the provenance, or it’s from a trusted source. This is why, incidentally, AP and most other news organizations have strict limits on how photos can be altered. I’d guess that a 4x “AI”-assisted enhancement would fall well outside the organization’s definition of acceptable alteration. So, you know, build that into your world view. In a world of social media filters turning people into cats or switching their gender presentation, this internalization may not be as much of a sticking point as it once was.
With that said, it’s still a pretty nifty thing, and I will play with it a lot now, especially for older, smaller digital pictures I have, and to (intentionally) make illustrations that are based from those upscaled originals. I’m glad to have the capability. And that capability is only going to get more advanced from here.