Google apologises after Photos app tags black people as ‘gorillas’

2 Jul 2015

Google has been apologising profusely after it has emerged that an auto-tagging feature of its Photos app that is able to guess what it is looking at wrongly concluded that two black people were ‘gorillas’.

The company has been developing a programme based on machine learning for its Photos app to make auto-tagging quicker for uploading to social media, but now it appears that the addition of an automatically-created tag ‘gorillas’ has backfired rather spectacularly.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Google has taken the decision of removing the tag completely from its basic form of artificial intelligence (AI) and has apologised to the person who highlighted the error on Twitter.

Jacky Alciné, the person whose photos were wrongfully tagged, went on to say it was specifically targeting one of his friends and has questioned what exactly they are basing their machine learning system on.

A Google spokesperson said of the tagging blunder: “We’re appalled and genuinely sorry that this happened. There is still clearly a lot of work to do with automatic image labelling, and we’re looking at how we can prevent these types of mistakes from happening in the future.”

Google’s chief architect for Google+, Yonatan Zunger, also chipped in with apologies to Alciné and promised that they were working on a hot-fix: “No, this is not how you determine someone’s target market. This is 100pc not okay.”

An expert in machine learning has said that the mislabelling error was more than likely a shortcoming in Google’s system, which had not seen enough images of gorillas to be able to accurately categorise a gorilla correctly.

Babak Hodjat, chief scientist at Sentient Technologies, said of the limits of the technology: “Humans are very sensitive and zoom in on certain differences that are important to us culturally. Machines cannot do that. They can’t zoom in and understand this type of context.”

Silverback eastern lowland gorilla image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic