Camera’s AI function is always on the lookout

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

The tiny Clips camera, which became available last week, decides on its own what to record. Whenever it’s on, the artificial intelligence inside is watching.

So in the interests of science and confronting dystopian fears, we used a $250 Clips for two weeks, turning it on a toddler playgroup, subway cars, even a cat cafe.

The result? The 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.

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 anyone who spends too much time operating a smartphone camera. You set this thing near your baby, dog or cat, and it will sift through all the boring moments to record 7-second video bursts of some of the interesting ones.

What’s remarkable is the tech giant seems to have understood that its AI technology 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 a privacy incursion.

From the moment you twist on the Clips’ lens, 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.

How does Clips know what’s interesting? Google said 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.

Google deserves a high-five for showing that there’s a way to design AI-powered products that doesn’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.