By Michael Gregson
Sri Lankans like a selfie. They're at it wherever you go. On the beach, in restaurants, at sporting events and weddings, you'll usually spot a group of friends or single person, usually young, posing for the ubiquitous selfie.
I am not a fan. I feel very self conscious if asked to take part in a group shot and my few attempts at a solo selfie came out looking rubbish and were immediately consigned to my phone's digital dustbin.
But help is at hand for those of us who are failures in the art of the selfie. The American software company Adobe recently demonstrated a phone app that uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to transform a bad image into a flattering selfie.
The app, which has yet to be given a name by Adobe, alters the perspective of the person's face, adding depth of field and replicating styles of other photos online. The idea of the editing software is to mimic the method used by professional photographers to take portraits.
The app makes it seem as if the selfie was taken at a distance, instead of just at arm's length. The system instantly gives your image a depth of field effect and you can also add any style you find online to your own picture. Look up the type of look you are after on your smartphone's internet browser and the app will ask if you want to apply that style to your photo.
Although this technology could be a game changer for the selfie, Adobe has yet to announce a release date. Of course, your selfie will still look better if you are good looking. No one has yet invented that which can transform an ugly duckling into a swan.
But researchers are working on an app that will help prevent selfies becoming killfies – or selfies that result in death. Carnegie Mellon University in the American city of Pittsburgh is collaborating with the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology in India on technology to warn users if their selfie location or pose is potentially deadly.
People around the globe have been putting themselves in reckless situations in the attempt to grab a memorable selfie. From January 2014 to September 2016, 127 people around the world died while taking selfies.
"In India, a number of deaths occurred when friends or lovers posed on railroad tracks, which is widely regarded as a symbol of long-term commitment in that culture," Carnegie Mellon reported. "Gun-related deaths in selfies occurred only in the US and Russia. Road and vehicle-related selfies and animal-related selfies also were associated with deaths."
The problem is so bad in Russia that the Moscow Government has issued a guide to safe selfie-taking. The campaign has the theme of "Your health and your life aren't worth risking for a million likes."
The guide offers helpful pointers such as not taking a selfie while holding a gun. This suggestion came after the death of a 21-year-old Russian woman who shot herself in the head while taking a selfie.The guide also discourages selfies on or near railway lines and on the roofs of tall buildings.
The advice to Russian selfie-takers seems pretty obvious, but sometimes people get caught up in the heat of the moment and need a gentle reminder of the danger they're in. That's where the new app being developed by Carnegie Mellon and the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology comes in.
The researchers culled public records to compile a list of 127 deaths associated with people around the world taking selfies over an 18-month period. Using that information, along with news reports on selfie-related deaths, they were able to design a system that uses location, image and text to classify whether a selfie was taken during a dangerous situation.
With machine learning, the researchers then taught a computer to look for dangerous selfies on social media sites. The computer, using image recognition, looked for dangerous locations like extreme heights, locations near water or near railways and busy roads.
Analysis of the image itself, as well as of any text it contained, helped train the computer to classify a selfie as dangerous or not. According to the scientists the system was able to tell the difference between a dangerous selfie and one that wasn't risky 73 per cent of the time.
An app based on this technology could be designed to warn a user or even disable the phone if a selfie is being taken in a dangerous situation. The problem, though, is that some people might use a warning as bragging rights that they're brave enough to put themselves in a dangerous situation. "There can be no app for stupidity," said Hemank Lamba, one of the researchers involved in the project.
The app also could be used to pinpoint areas where people are routinely taking dangerous pictures. People attempting to take pictures at the locations would see a 'no selfie' zone warning flash up on their phone's screen.
Sri Lankans are not immune from killfies. Last year two Sri Lankan schoolgirls died while on an evening picnic with their families in Oman. Local news reports say the girls went towards a spring, and fell in while one of them was taking a picture. Initially one girl slipped and in a bid to save herself she caught the hands of the other and both plunged into deep water. They were pulled out after a long struggle, but were declared dead on arrival at the Sultan Qaboos Hospital near Muscat.
A few days later a selfie tragedy struck in Sri Lanka when a Chinese tourist died while posing for a picture on the foot-board of train. Her death was witnessed by the Station Master at Madampagama Station near Ambalangoda.
"I saw a foreign girl seated on the footboard of the third carriage, which was not crowded. The train was 100 yards away ... She was busy taking selfie photos from a mobile phone. I waved my hands and yelled to warn her that the platform was the same height as the footboard and that she would be hurt when the train goes past the platform," said Station Master Manikku Badduge. "Within seconds the train reached the station. I saw the girl's legs hitting the platform and she being dragged along before finally falling under the train onto the track." Her dismembered body was found after the train passed by.
Badduge added that this was the second incident he had witnessed of someone being killed while trying to take a selfie. He had also seen a local schoolgirl being run over by a train at Ambalangoda while attempting to take a photo of her and the approaching train.
"Accidents are avoidable if people take precautions," said the Station Master. But unfortunately the quests for 'likes' on social media means we are likely to see killfies continue to rise in Sri Lanka and around the world.
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