The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Google’s first camera isn’t an evil all-seeing eye. Yet.

The Washington Post's Geoffrey A. Fowler went to KitTea Cat Cafe in San Francisco to test Google's camera that takes seven-second videos throughout your day. (Video: Jhaan Elker, Geoffrey Fowler, Javaria Khan/The Washington Post)

The very idea of the first camera from Google causes people to freak out.

The tiny Clips camera, which arrived in stores Tuesday, decides on its own what to record. Whenever it’s on, the artificial intelligence inside is watching. “This doesn’t even *seem* innocent,” tweeted Elon Musk after Google announced Clips in October. When I first saw one, I couldn’t shake the feeling Google had created the creepy surveillance contraption in Dave Eggers’s Silicon Valley horror “The Circle.”

So in the interests of science and averting dystopia, I’ve been using a $250 Clips for the past two weeks. I turned its eye on a toddler playgroup. I wore it on the subway. I clipped it onto a feather toy at a cat cafe.

And I learned Google’s candid camera isn’t an evil all-seeing eye. In fact, it's not even good enough to replace the need for your camera on your phone. But it tells us a lot about where technology is heading, for better and worse.

Clips is like a GoPro with a mind of its own. It’s the first camera that seeks to use AI to replace the main job of photographers: pressing the shutter button. It’s not hard to imagine the appeal to helicopter parents and anyone who spends too much time operating a smartphone camera. You set this thing near your baby (human, feline or canine), and it will sift through all the boring moments to record seven-second video bursts of some of the interesting ones. Many of us record far more than we ever edit, or even look at. To Google, that looks like a problem AI might solve.

Amazon wants a key to your house. I did it. I regretted it.

What’s just as remarkable as Google’s AI advances is that the tech giant seems to have understood it makes people uncomfortable. In a number of notably Un-Googly ways, Clips plays it extra careful with how it handles data that could easily become yet another privacy incursion.

At least on this first version. And Clips is definitely just the beginning for AI in cameras and all sorts of everyday things.

Getting the shot — sometimes

From the moment you twist the lens on the Clips to turn it on, the camera starts hunting for interesting shots. Its wide-angle lens can see a bit more than most phones, though it captures scenes at a lower quality and without any sound.

But how does Clips know what’s interesting? Google says it spent three years studying what people do with cameras. Then it hired three professionals — a documentary filmmaker, a photojournalist and a fine arts photographer — to train its camera how to pick good shots when they happen. Good: stability with a little bit of motion. Bad: fingers obscuring the lens. They taught it to look for joyous faces, especially of children, and to recognize dogs and cats.

When I took it into the real world, Clips captured about half of what I would have chosen — and some of what I would not. Google says AI isn’t about finding the needle in a haystack as much as it is clearing away some of the hay.

I brought one to a San Francisco cat cafe to see if it would suffice in a setting literally bursting with cute. It got some Like-worthy shots but didn’t replace my phone. I had to keep moving Clips to where the action was in view and in focus, ideally within three to eight feet. (Warning: Cats and dogs also think Clips, which is not waterproof, looks like a chew toy.) The camera seems like something one might wear, but it doesn’t work well when you’re moving around. And good luck clipping one on a cat.

With Clips, in AI you must trust. There is a button you can use to force it to capture, but if you’re using that, you might as well get out your phone. There’s no screen on the back to show you what it sees. It can learn which faces are important if you take a three-second close-up or give it permission to learn from shots in an existing Google Photos library

If you’re in the market for a camera to record anything other than kids or pets — from recitals to scuba trips — you’re better off with an equally tiny $400 GoPro Hero 6 Black.

But is it evil?

Even with a narrow focus on kids and pets, Clips raises thorny questions. The first one that came to my mind: Does it capture black, brown and white children equally? Google Photos algorithms did, infamously, identify black faces as gorillas in 2015.

I tested Clips with a half-dozen kids who were Asian, African American and white, and the software seemed equally interested in them all. Google says it is now more sensitive to building inclusive AI, but its algorithms are still a black box — and are only going to get more complicated from here.

And forget missed shots: If I’m going to let a product peer into my life, who gets to see what’s going on? Just because Clips wasn’t trained to recognize images other than faces and pets doesn’t mean it won’t witness some more eyebrow-raising life moments.

Here’s where Google surprised me with unusual — at least for Google — privacy concessions. Clips doesn’t connect to the Internet: its intelligence lives on the camera hardware, not in the cloud. (That required some leaps in hardware, it says, that only recently became available.) Google already uses AI to analyze people’s shots in a far more aggressive way with its popular Photos service — but Clips doesn’t rely on that capability.

Clips shots stay physically on the camera until you use a companion Android or iPhone app to transfer over a shot to your phone’s camera roll or delete it. (Clips has 16 GB of storage, which I found hard to fill because its battery lasts only about three hours.) Google says it also isn’t using our data or our choices about which clips to keep or delete to improve its algorithms.

Other issues remain: While you may have control over your own camera, what kind of consent do you need from the people you’re recording? Clips does have a blinking light, but it is small.

This camera is also an additional beachhead in our playpens and cat palaces for a company that already has way too much data about us. There are plenty of digitally savvy consumers who aren’t comfortable with devices like the Google Home speaker, or its rivals Amazon Echo and Apple HomePod. (Amazon CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post.) A Deloitte survey last year found 40 percent of respondents worried smart home gadgets reveal too much about their personal lives.

Clips may be a first for a point-and-shoot camera, but it tells us a lot about how AI is arriving in our lives. Amazon is using AI to judge how we dress, with its Echo Look camera. Earlier this month, a start-up called LightHouse debuted an AI home security camera that’s smart enough to alert you if the kids are running late coming home from school. I guarantee that improving your cat videos is just the beginning of Google’s ambitions.

Google deserves a high five for showing there’s a way to design AI-powered products that don’t require beaming data about our lives over the Internet. The risk is that could make us a little more numb if (or when) Google decides to update its terms of service and connect Clips to the cloud. Or puts out a new version that acts more like a surveillance camera.

Google spokeswoman Emily Clarke said Clips does not connect to the Internet for privacy reasons and to prioritize fast transfer data via a phone. As to whether that would change in the future, she said, “We don’t speculate.”

Read more from Geoffrey A. Fowler:

You don’t have to feel guilty about sharing your TV log-in

Why you cannot quit Amazon Prime — even if maybe you should

Addicted to your smartphone? Now there’s an app for that.