One of the best features of our smartphones is the ability to apply a few tweaks to our photos before sending them to relatives or sharing them on social media. Using a phone’s built-in tools, we can bump up the brightness or fix red-eye with the desired result of a photo that looks more like the real-life moment when we snapped it. Of course, these same tools can now deliver photos even “better” than what we saw in real life. We can even create moments that didn’t happen in real life.
Is it okay to pass those off as real? What is the boundary between fiddling with a photo and faking one? Does it even matter?
Such questions will soon be forced on us through the integration of artificial intelligence with smartphones. Popular figures on Instagram have already demonstrated how easy it is to alter a mood or look, airbrushing a photo of a crying woman, for instance, into a beaming and happy version of herself. Images entirely generated by AI, often incorporating real people’s likenesses, are becoming nearly indistinguishable from photos.
Writing recently at The New York Times, tech editor Brian Chen described how devices like Google’s Pixel 8 come with an AI-powered “Magic Editor,” a tool that can remove and add objects, move subjects around, and even stitch together elements from multiple photos into a new one. The result is imagery that is partially make-believe and, though it comes from the camera app and is stored with other “photos,” can no longer strictly be called photography. These snapshots of alternate realities fudge the truth in front of your lens, which is the point since they’re closer to “exactly the photo you want.”
According to Ren Ng, a computer science professor at Berkeley, this means that “[a]s we go boldly forth into this future, a photo is no longer a visual fact.” AI-powered photography and editing means that people will “increasingly have to question whether what they see in their images is real—including photos from loved ones.” Of course, this goes further than just personal photos and will contribute, Ng thinks, “to the spread of fake media online when misinformation is already rampant, and it’s hard to know what to trust.”
Last month, in fact, Hamas falsely accused Israel of faking images of atrocities using AI. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to see how future conflicts will be sparked by a convincing image posted online.
Increasingly, the fundamental worldview question of our age is “What is real?” Fake photos, artificial wombs, and AI chatbots posing as friends are just a few examples of technology that is challenging our understanding of reality, including our understanding of who we are and why and even whether we need each other.
Christians should have a clear answer. Nonnegotiable purposes and relationships have been built into creation by God, things humans were designed to pursue and steward in particular ways. This is not an infinitely malleable world. We are not infinitely malleable creatures, able to invent and reinvent ourselves as technology permits. This applies both to big changes like amniotic pods replacing mothers as well as seemingly trivial changes like “photography” tools.
Here are two principles to keep in mind as we “go boldly forth into this future” of AI, smartphones, and photography.
First, we should never lie, not even with AI. That means we need to define the term “photograph.” Is it a shared visual fact, a representation of reality that can establish everything from family memories to journalistic truth, or is it an idealized digital painting? We shouldn’t get in the habit of passing one off as the other.
Second, we shouldn’t look to technology to replace human ability. Somewhere between using AI to edit out a trash can in a family photo and using it to create a fake family member for Instagram, a moral line is crossed. That line is on a slope, and we are about to find out just how slippery it is. Planting your feet firmly and intentionally now is a good idea.
Christians should be pro-technology and pro-human. God gave humans the ingenuity to make such tools, and they can be used to glorify Him and love others. However, tools–like their users–need a purpose grounded in God’s design for reality. The moment our tools begin using us or severing our relationship with that reality, something has gone wrong.
We need wisdom in the days ahead, not just artificial intelligence.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Shane Morris. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.
Photo Courtesy: ©GettyImages/ Alexander Spatari
Publish Date: December 5, 2023
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
BreakPoint is a program of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. BreakPoint commentaries offer incisive content people can't find anywhere else; content that cuts through the fog of relativism and the news cycle with truth and compassion. Founded by Chuck Colson (1931 – 2012) in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends. Today, you can get it in written and a variety of audio formats: on the web, the radio, or your favorite podcast app on the go.
John Stonestreet is President of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and radio host of BreakPoint, a daily national radio program providing thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.