Can MIT's AI Make You Disappear?

Category: Software

The eggheads at MIT’s Media Lab are at it again. This time, they have mixed some artificial intelligence with some image editing tech and named the result “Deep Angel.” They claim it can make people, animals, and other objects disappear. Let’s see what the Deep Angel actually does and decide if it’s worth getting excited over it.

What is Deep Angel?

Deep Angel is an artificial intelligence that erases objects from photographs,” says the first sentence on the AI’s page. That’s it; that’s all Deep Angel does. It has the nice feature that enables anyone to link a public Instagram account to Deep Angel. That enables you to “erase” objects from someone else’s photos or videos.

I wonder how the owners of those copyright-protected images feel about Deep Angel. Their work is copied, the originals are not manipulated by Deep Angel. They have given the public license to copy their works (for “non-commercial” uses, I suppose) But did they anticipate that large and/or numerous objects including people would be erased from their works? Erasing a living being is a highly emotion-charged act, as Deep Angel can literally show you.

Watch the video embedded in this page. First, a brave and gay flotilla of sailboats wink out of existence on the sun-drenched bay. That’s spooky but not very scary. But then a dog vanishes while being petted by its master; many dog lovers will no doubt gasp in angst at that poignant sight. And when cars and people start disappearing, it gets pretty unsettling for even the most pragmatic realist.

Deep Angel AI software

“Deep Angel enables you to uncover the aesthetics of absence,” the MIT gang says. My brain hurts just trying to uncover the meaning of that sentence. And “What happens when we can remove things from the world around us?” ask the creators of the Deep Angel software.

If you're trying to eliminate an anonymous face from the background of a vacation photo, then fine. But what if the intent is to deceive, or revise history by making someone effectively disappear?

Buddhists and Hinduists will appreciate Deep Angel’s dramatic demonstration of reality’s impermanence. Both philosophical systems (they are religions only for instructional and motivational purposes) exhort devotees to release their attachments to impermanent objects, animals, and people. In Hinduism’s most famous and honored sacred text, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Supreme Personality of Godhood, Krishna, teaches his most ardent devotee, the warrior Arjuna: “He who wherever he goes is attached to no person or place by ties of flesh… take it that such a one has attained Perfection.”

What more effective way to practice non-attachment could there be than Deep Angel? Over and over again, one can experience the sudden loss of a closely-held delight; a favorite hat, a pet, a loving spouse, a child or grandchild. Practice makes perfect, does it not?

Christianity holds that the physical world to which we are so attached is as meaningless as dry grass that is cast into a fire. “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” asks Mark 8:36, rhetorically. Deep Angel can help you see the whole world vanish one piece or class of pieces at a time, while you, the observer, remain unaffected by catastrophe.

Can Deep Angel Help You Fight a Parking Ticket?

But perhaps I've gotten too philosophical here. Deep Angel lets you select the type of object you want to remove from a photo. Some of the options are Person, Cat, Dog, Car, Bicycle, Airplane, Bus, Traffic Light, Fire Hydrant, Parking Meter, Stop Sign, Bird, Horse, Cow, Umbrella, Tie, Frisbee, Baseball Bat, Wine Glass, Fork, Knife, Banana, Hot Dog, Toilet, TV, Cell Phone, and Scissors.

I only wish I had this tool available yesterday, when I was submitting my evidence photos to fight a parking ticket in New York City. I could have removed the parking meter from the photo! Maybe you can think of something you'd like to make disappear, too. But alas, in my testing, the technology does not work nearly as well as shown in the demonstration video. In the first photo below, I asked Deep Angel to remove the umbrella. It did a fair job of recreating the pond in the background, but the poor girl went missing too. And in the second, the little girl survived, but the dog removal looks like it was done with a brown crayon.

deepangel - umbrella removal deepangel - dog removal

From a technological standpoint, Deep Angel is merely an image editing tool in which AI does the tricky work of identifying objects, guessing at what was behind them, and precisely specifying the pixels to be replaced. Or, tracking a virtual object’s virtual movements and erasing pixels exactly where they would be if the object was real and really moving. Anyone who has done such editing manually will approve of this time-saving use of AI! But the wonder is not in the tech; it’s in absence.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Can MIT's AI Make You Disappear?"

Posted by:

Van Bodegon
30 Aug 2018

In the usual manner of "The Latest Thing" in the computer world it is too flawed to be useful.

Posted by:

30 Aug 2018

In *1984* George Orwell had an entire building of workers carefully remove proof of the existence of people from present and past. We have arrived.

Posted by:

Roger Whewell
30 Aug 2018

I anticipate that after the excitement has cooled down I'll still be left with telephone poles and wires or their void. So, what good is that.

Posted by:

Richard Alan Dengrove
30 Aug 2018

Forget 1984. A friend of mine who works with photos was told by his boss he wanted someone who was out of favor to disappear from a photo.

Posted by:

Doug W.
30 Aug 2018

I see absolutely no use for this software as applied to videos. And the ability to remove objects (manually) from still photos has been around a long time. I'm not excited!

Posted by:

30 Aug 2018

This would have saved huge amounts of time for the party photo editors in the USSR as they purged formerly important people out of photos as they fell from the grace of the new powerful people.
Remember, this is the group that 1984 and Animal Farm was written about after Orwell recognized their frame of mind.

Posted by:

Mac 'n' Cheese
30 Aug 2018

This time you've made a mountain from a molehill, Bob. It's not philosophical. It's just automated PhotoShopping.

EDITOR'S NOTE: I thought that at first, too. But it's the AI component that enables the software to recognize different types of objects in a photo, and to guess at what was behind them.

Posted by:

30 Aug 2018

One word: Photoshop. It became the first 'Telephone-power wire filter' I could use with my camera. And it works!

My Master worked on both the Alpha and Beta testing, has used it in her work for more than 25 years, and says "There is no group of five people anywhere on Earth who knows everything it can do." I believe her. Ask ANY PS forum how to do a certain task, and there are never less than 5-10 ways to do it.

That tool is already here - and has been. As with many things (software for example) making it 'better' often, usually, makes it worse.

Posted by:

Craig Beard
30 Aug 2018

As much as I enjoy and benefit from your newsletter, I must say that I was surprised to see you make such a sweeping statement as "Christianity holds that the physical world to which we are so attached is as meaningless as dry grass that is cast into a fire." Such a statement regarding Christian belief about the creation is at best simplistic, at worst wrong. I know religion is not the focal point of your articles, but accuracy counts.

Posted by:

30 Aug 2018

Re: “He who wherever he goes is attached to no person or place by ties of flesh… take it that such a one has attained Perfection.”

That allows cell phones, doesn't it?

Posted by:

30 Aug 2018

Ahhhh but here's the beauty of technology... the 2.0 version is always better, and 3, and 4. Can't wait to the the Angel 10 version of this!

Posted by:

30 Aug 2018

A better trick is in making things appear.

Posted by:

30 Aug 2018

Profoundly unimpressive...

Posted by:

31 Aug 2018

perhaps, being intelligent by definition, you would see better results by asking it to remove the lady's blouse.

Posted by:

R.S. Elam
03 Sep 2018

I'd have thought that since removing Gary Sinese's legs in "Forest Gump" that this kind of thing would not be so flawed.

Posted by:

05 Sep 2018


Your comment surely made my chuckle!!!

Posted by:

14 Sep 2018

One can get s similar effect with some skill with a "Clone brush" in Paintshop Pro. I don't know if Photoshop has it.....probably.

Posted by:

17 Sep 2018

I'm not concerned, I disappeared a long time ago!

Posted by:

17 Sep 2018

Removing things from photos has been around since the start of photography. For a good history, see the book "Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before PhotoShop" by Mia Fineman. My son has a book on Soviet photographic manipulation. I don't know the title.

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