What Google could have learned from Yahoo about racist photo tags

In what has become an increasingly familiar ritual, Google said this week that it was “appalled and genuinely sorry” after its new Google Photos image-recognition software labeled a Brooklyn computer programmer and his friend — both of them black — as “gorillas.”

For more on how the offense occurred and Google’s contrite response, see Ars Technica or Slate.

This is the latest in a pattern of offensive Silicon Valley bugs, some the fault of algorithms, others of widespread user prejudice or ineffective filtering, such as with YouTube Kids. Lack of diversity in Silicon Valley’s engineering workforce probably isn’t helping either, as many have pointed out.

But what’s particularly odd about the Google Photos bug is that Yahoo confronted a similar problem when it launched new image recognition features on its Flickr photo collection service in May. This was nearly a month before Google Photos launched at the Google I/O conference, leaving time for Googlers to learn from Yahoo’s embarrassment.

As Flickr explains to its users, “tags are keywords that make photos easier to find in Flickr search. The ones you add will show up in dark gray. Flickr’s friendly robots will try to help out by adding some for you.”

But Yahoo’s “friendly robots” offended many when an African-American man — as well as a white woman with face-paint — were automatically tagged by Flickr as “apes” and “animals.” Not only that, but the gates of a World War II-era Nazi concentration camp were labeled with the words “sport” and “trellis” and “jungle gym.”

I asked Yahoo today if the company has since fixed these problems, and this was the response:

Even though the technology is advanced, sometimes it makes mistakes. When errors occur, users have the ability to delete the inaccurate tags and doing so enables our algorithm to learn from the feedback and the technology becomes smarter and more accurate over time.

For some users who only want to see the tags they created and no autotags, we’ve added the option to hide autotags on every image including their own in the settings menu. Disabling the setting will also prevent autotags from appearing on their images when viewed by others.

We take community feedback seriously and continue to evaluate how we can update the automated tagging feature for our members so that they can have the best product experience.

In other words: Tag now, then apologize and fix the AI later.

Above: Screenshot of Yahoo Flickr. (Courtesy Yahoo)


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  • Steve Hammill

    Computer bugs are not racist – unless it is a bug by design.
    And don’t expect me to believe that diversity would eliminate this sort of bug.

    Unfortunate, unintended results are part of systems automation.
    Find the humor, fix the bug, and move on.

    • Michael Witt

      Agree. Let common sense prevail.

  • Can anyone tell me where to find Adobe photoshop cs5 crack because i can’t buy it. please help me.

  • DemAnalFissure

    The entire race thing is so overblown. White guilt is stupid. White privilege is a joke. Does it exist in Mexico or Africa?

    • ellafino

      Yes in Mexico it does as it concerns descendants of indigenous origin and slaves who escaped from the south.

    • trueamerican

      Yep it does.. but i think in mexico its more of a $$$ talks type of thing… im mexico there is. low class and high class.. no middle class.. so it can be much more harsh because they dont have ACLUs to speak for them

  • natasha gul