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Photoshop AI thinks ‘happiness’ is a smile with rotten teeth

You can’t swing a dead cat these days without running into AI. And nowhere is that more true than in photography. I’ve certainly had fun with it on more than my share of photos. But the more I attempt to be a “serious” photographer, the less I want to rely on artificial intelligence to do my job for me.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have its place. Because it does. And at the end of the day, using AI filters isn’t really any different than hitting “auto” in Photoshop or Lightroom and using those results. And AI certainly has its place in the world of art. (Though I’d probably put that place somewhere way in the back, behind the humans who make it all possible in the first place.)

A recent encounter with the “Neural filters” in Adobe Photoshop has me rethinking things a little, though.

Phil Nickinson, as edited by Adobe Photoshop's Neural Filter.
Phil Nickinson, as seen with a decent edit in Lightroom and Photoshop on the left, and with Photoshop’s “Neural Filter” happiness slider turned up on the right. Phil Nickinson/Digital Trends

Let’s set the stage: In addition to all the other stuff I shoot on a regular basis — portraits, sports, work stuff, events — I also like to put myself in front of the camera and lights once a week or so. It’s good practice for shooting and editing, if nothing else, and it’s good to have some decent pictures laying around just in case I get hit by a bus.

And I was pretty happy with my latest attempt. I’m no trained model, that’s for sure. And the women in my house are far easier on the eye than my aging face. But, still. A decent shot.

“But you look mad,” my wife said to me after I sent her the picture. And she’s right. I can be a serious guy, but not that serious. And that’s when I thought about Photoshop, which has the aforementioned “Neural filters.” That’s a great name, but it really just means it’s going to take what you’re working on, shoot it to its servers, and go to work. All you have to do is more some sliders.

There are all kinds of high-level options here, from skin smoothing and colorization for black-and-white photos to artificial landscapes and makeup. “Smart Portrait” is what I was after here, specifically the “Happiness” setting therein.

There’s no real skill required here. Grab the slider and pick a number. I went all the way up to 33, just because. The result was … not good.

It’s super easy to make geographical jokes here. I live 20 minutes away from one Southern state that is the butt of plenty of them, and not much farther from another. (And I wasn’t the only one to quickly think of that.) Never mind that low-hanging fruit, though. I’m just trying to figure out in what world Adobe’s AI engine was thinking here.

Sure, my lips parted ever so slightly into something you could reasonably call a smile. The mustache moved along with it. But so did my teeth. A lot. This really should go without saying, but they do not look like that. My chompers do not look as if they’ve been on the losing side of the war against drugs for just a little too long. They really do not appear to have only seen the inside of a dentist’s office by accident because it was next door to a pawn shop. And let’s not even start on the pirate eye.

It’s easy to poke fun at the responses large language models give when you feed it nonsense in the first place. But in this case, Adobe’s was fed a 45-year-old who’s in as good a shape as he’s been since high school.

I have no idea what I did to make it so angry. And to be fair, it’s always learning, and Adobe has a button that asks if you’re happy with the edits the Neural Filter applied.

Suffice it to say, I was not.

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Phil Nickinson
Section Editor, Audio/Video
Phil spent the 2000s making newspapers with the Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal, the 2010s with Android Central and then the…
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