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Google's 'smart' food diary is actually kind of dumb

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Measuring calories in photos would be a great idea — if calorie counting worked

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Google — which apparently hasn't gotten the message that calorie counting doesn't work — is building an automated food diary meant to estimate calorie counts from the pictures we take of our meals, according to a report in Popular Science. The project, called Im2Calories, uses technology from DeepMind, an AI startup Google acquired in 2014.

Im2Calories is meant to measure the size of food, both in absolute terms and relative to the plate it's on, and can also identify condiments. And it doesn't even matter if the picture is high-resolution or not, according to the report.

Right now, the technology is still inaccurate at estimating calorie counts. Kevin Murphy, a researcher at Google, admits as much to Popular Science. "Okay fine, maybe we get the calories off by 20 percent," he says. "It doesn't matter." The goal for Google is to minimize those inaccuracies over time, Murphy claims.

There's no questioning Google's ability to collect and process data from a large number of users, but the company would still have to solve one big problem for something like Im2Calories to work: calorie counting is unreliable. A major study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2011 found that quality of food is a more important contributing factor than quantity. "Conventional wisdom — to eat everything in moderation, eat fewer calories, and avoid fatty foods — isn’t the best approach," Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, the lead author of the study, told The New York Times. "Just counting calories won’t matter much unless you look at the kinds of calories you’re eating."

But even if calories were a good measure for health, food labels — the source of Google's data — have also been shown to be inaccurate. There's so much uncertainty about calorie counting that in 2010 David Kirchhoff, then-CEO of the Weight Watchers, admitted "calorie-counting has become unhelpful" for people trying to lose weight. (The company has since abandoned its calorie-first approach.)

Google has filed a patent for Im2Calories, but there's no word yet on when the service might be available. In the meantime, other companies are attempting similar projects to Im2Calories backed by equally questionable science.