Eight years after a controversy over Black people being mislabeled as gorillas by image analysis software — and despite big advances in computer vision — tech giants still fear repeating the mistake.
When Google released its stand-alone Photos app in May 2015, people were wowed by what it could do: analyze images to label the people, places and things in them, an astounding consumer offering at the time. But a couple of months after the release, a software developer, Jacky Alciné, discovered that Google had labeled photos of him and a friend, who are both Black, as “gorillas,” a term that is particularly offensive because it echoes centuries of racist tropes.
In the ensuing controversy, Google prevented its software from categorizing anything in Photos as gorillas, and it vowed to fix the problem. Eight years later, with significant advances in artificial intelligence, we tested whether Google had resolved the issue, and we looked at comparable tools from its competitors: Apple, Amazon and Microsoft.
Photo apps made by Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft rely on artificial intelligence to allow us to search for particular items, and pinpoint specific memories, in our increasingly large photo collections. Want to find your day at the zoo out of 8,000 images? Ask the app. So to test the search function, we curated 44 images featuring people, animals and everyday objects.