Google’s Photos App is Still Unable to Find Gorillas


Google’s Photos app is still unable to find photos of gorillas — eight years after a controversy over its “racist” algorithm which was mislabelling Black people as them.

In May 2015, Google released its stand-alone Photos app which was able to classify and label the people, destinations, and objects in an image.

But, a few months later, Black software engineer Jacky Alciné tweeted Google and pointed out that the image recognition algorithm in its Google Photos app kept classifying photos of him and his friend as “gorillas.”

New York-based Alciné tweeted the company asking what kind of sample images the company had used to allow such a dreadful mistake to happen.

Google said it was “appalled and genuinely sorry” about the mistake and apologized to Alciné. The company also promised to resolve the problem.

A Google executive announced that the label gorilla would no longer be applied to groups of photos. He added that Google would be “working on longer-term fixes around both linguistics — words to be careful about in photos of people — and image recognition itself — e.g. better recognition of dark-skinned faces.”

When the company developed the Google Photos app in 2015, it claimed that it had not included enough photos of Black people in its training data — causing the app to make this terrible mistake.

Still Not Fixed

However, a new report in The New York Times today shows, that eight years on, even with huge advances in artificial intelligence (AI) technology, Google Photos has not fixed anything.

The company has simply blocked its image recognition algorithms from identifying gorillas altogether — seemingly limiting the service rather than risk another harmful misclassification.

The New York Times searched its own collection of 44 images featuring people, animals, and objects in the Google Photos app.

When the publication searched its image collection for cats and kangaroos, the software successfully identified photos that matched its queries.

But when it searched for gorillas, Google Photos failed to successfully find any images with the images. When The New York Times widened its search to baboons, chimpanzees, orangutans, and monkeys, Google Photos still failed to identify them despite some of the photos featuring primates.

Apple Can’t Find Gorillas Either

The publication also discovered that Apple Photos had the same problem when it came to identifying Gorillas in the images. Apple Photos has apparently similarly turned off the ability to visually search for primates over concerns it could mislabel a person as an animal.

“It could accurately find photos of particular animals, except for most primates,” The New York Times says of Apple Photos.

“We did get results for gorilla, but only when the text appeared in a photo, such as an image of Gorilla Tape.”

The awkward workaround Google and Apple have implemented in its photo software highlights the difficulties tech companies face in advancing image analysis technology as well as the inherent biases in AI — especially in terms of recognition of dark-skinned faces.

While Apple declined to comment on the report, a Google spokesman says it prevented its photo app from labeling anything as a monkey or ape because it decided the benefit “does not outweigh the risk of harm.”

Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.