Will AI and Automation Replace Photographers, Retouchers, or Models?

With more and more jobs at risk from the progression of automation and AI in society’s workplaces, how does the photography industry fare?

Robots, AI, and automation has already ravaged a number of industries that were one staple forms of employment. Any role that has repetitive and routine tasks is beginning to see the occupation of its position taken by technology over persons. Supermarkets, warehouses, and factories are the most affected and most discussed, but as the technology improves, the expansion of its risk to human workers swells too.

A think tank in 2018 estimated that 1 in 5 jobs will be “displaced” by automation and AI by the year 2030. Now, while a bleak statistic, it’s worth mentioning that this isn’t strictly a loss of 1/5th of all jobs, as certain roles AI cannot outperform humans, at least not for the foreseeable future. There’s even evidence that the total number of jobs will rise in that timeframe. Nevertheless, certain jobs will become obsolete where AI can unambiguously outperform and for a lower financial investment.

Oxford University researched this area extensively and their analyses have shown that out of 702 examined occupations, 12 had a 99% chance of displacement by technology. These range anything from data entry clerks to watch repairers. Worryingly, “models” have a 98% chance of being replaced by AI, though I suspect that is with reference to ecommerce. Generally, the arts and the computerization of occupations are non-overlapping magisteria. In fact, the estimated probability of photographers being displaced by AI is only 2%. A probability that is likely a sweeping glance of the profession at large.

Commercial photographers, for example, have seen a lot of their photography work encroached on by technology. While not directly replaced by robots — although that’d be a more dramatic summary — 3D renderings are becoming commonplace. A question I get asked regularly in my consulting work with watch brands is whether it’s ok for them to use 3D renderings of their watches in their marketing. Sadly, it’s not only “ok”, it’s pretty standard practice, even from the giants in the industry. Similarly, in real estate photography, cameras and software pairings are allowing estate agents to walk around the house filming the location, only for the software to process it in to a 3D rendering. As mentioned with models, it’s hard to imagine that mass ecommerce photography couldn’t be replaced entirely along with those displaced models.

Retouching, being somewhat of a niche profession, wasn’t part of this Oxford University study, but for me, it’s the biggest worry. One only need look at the direction Adobe Photoshop has gone with the Content Aware Fill tool. In the last decade, Adobe has worked on automating tiresome and laborious tasks, like intricate cloning.

Not to mention, Adobe’s face detection is so advanced now, that it can easily pick out faces from all angles, and each individual feature of that face for localized manipulation. Even the most modern cameras like the Sony a7 III have facial recognition in which you can photograph a face, save it to the camera’s memory, and set a priority for focusing throughout your shoot. It doesn’t seem to me to be much of a leap to have this combine with Content Aware Fill and the feature manipulation of the Liquify tool to displace beauty retouchers. Beauty retouching is a fantastically intricate and difficult task to be executed to a high standard. However, a lot of what it does is time consuming routine tasks; the chief warning sign for technological automation of an occupation.

What do you think? Will the photography industry be drastically affected by AI and automation, or will its intangible qualities and nuances prove it resilient to the robot armies? For those interested in the subject and want a more than cursory glance at the issue, I have left a number of references below for further reading.

Lead image courtesy of Athey on DeviantArt

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