Google’s Photo App Still Can’t Find Gorillas. And Neither Can Apple’s. (2023)


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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.

By Nico Grant and Kashmir Hill

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.

We started with Google Photos. When we searched our collection for cats and kangaroos, we got images that matched our queries. The app performed well in recognizing most other animals.

But when we looked for gorillas, Google Photos failed to find any images. We widened our search to baboons, chimpanzees, orangutans and monkeys, and it still failed even though there were images of all of these primates in our collection.

We then looked at Google’s competitors. We discovered Apple Photos had the same issue: It could accurately find photos of particular animals, except for most primates. We did get results for gorilla, but only when the text appeared in a photo, such as an image of Gorilla Tape.

The photo search in Microsoft OneDrive drew a blank for every animal we tried. Amazon Photos showed results for all searches, but it was over-inclusive. When we searched for gorillas, the app showed a menagerie of primates, and repeated that pattern for other animals.

There was one member of the primate family that Google and Apple were able to recognize — lemurs, the permanently startled-looking, long-tailed animals that share opposable thumbs with humans, but are more distantly related than are apes.

Google’s and Apple’s tools were clearly the most sophisticated when it came to image analysis.

Yet Google, whose Android software underpins most of the world’s smartphones, has made the decision to turn off the ability to visually search for primates for fear of making an offensive mistake and labeling a person as an animal. And Apple, with technology that performed similarly to Google’s in our test, appeared to disable the ability to look for monkeys and apes as well.

Consumers may not need to frequently perform such a search — though in 2019, an iPhone user complained on Apple’s customer support forum that the software “can’t find monkeys in photos on my device.” But the issue raises larger questions about other unfixed, or unfixable, flaws lurking in services that rely on computer vision — a technology that interprets visual images — as well as other products powered by A.I.

Mr. Alciné was dismayed to learn that Google has still not fully solved the problem and said society puts too much trust in technology.

“I’m going to forever have no faith in this A.I.,” he said.

Computer vision products are now used for tasks as mundane as sending an alert when there is a package on the doorstep, and as weighty as navigating cars and finding perpetrators in law enforcement investigations.

Errors can reflect racist attitudes among those encoding the data. In the gorilla incident, two former Google employees who worked on this technology said the problem was that the company had not put enough photos of Black people in the image collection that it used to train its A.I. system. As a result, the technology was not familiar enough with darker-skinned people and confused them for gorillas.

As artificial intelligence becomes more embedded in our lives, it is eliciting fears of unintended consequences. Although computer vision products and A.I. chatbots like ChatGPT are different, both depend on underlying reams of data that train the software, and both can misfire because of flaws in the data or biases incorporated into their code.

Microsoft recently limited users’ ability to interact with a chatbot built into its search engine, Bing, after it instigated inappropriate conversations.

Microsoft’s decision, like Google’s choice to prevent its algorithm from identifying gorillas altogether, illustrates a common industry approach — to wall off technology features that malfunction rather than fixing them.

“Solving these issues is important,” said Vicente Ordóñez, a professor at Rice University who studies computer vision. “How can we trust this software for other scenarios?”

Michael Marconi, a Google spokesman, said Google had prevented its photo app from labeling anything as a monkey or ape because it decided the benefit “does not outweigh the risk of harm.”

Apple declined to comment on users’ inability to search for most primates on its app.

Representatives from Amazon and Microsoft said the companies were always seeking to improve their products.

Bad Vision

When Google was developing its photo app, which was released eight years ago, it collected a large amount of images to train the A.I. system to identify people, animals and objects.

Its significant oversight — that there were not enough photos of Black people in its training data — caused the app to later malfunction, two former Google employees said. The company failed to uncover the “gorilla” problem back then because it had not asked enough employees to test the feature before its public debut, the former employees said.

Google profusely apologized for the gorillas incident, but it was one of a number of episodes in the wider tech industry that have led to accusations of bias.

Other products that have been criticized include HP’s facial-tracking webcams, which could not detect some people with dark skin, and the Apple Watch, which, according to a lawsuit, failed to accurately read blood oxygen levels across skin colors. The lapses suggested that tech products were not being designed for people with darker skin. (Apple pointed to a paper from 2022 that detailed its efforts to test its blood oxygen app on a “wide range of skin types and tones.”)

(Video) Finally talking about it

Years after the Google Photos error, the company encountered a similar problem with its Nest home-security camera during internal testing, according to a person familiar with the incident who worked at Google at the time. The Nest camera, which used A.I. to determine whether someone on a property was familiar or unfamiliar, mistook some Black people for animals. Google rushed to fix the problem before users had access to the product, the person said.

However, Nest customers continue to complain on the company’s forums about other flaws. In 2021, a customer received alerts that his mother was ringing the doorbell but found his mother-in-law instead on the other side of the door. When users complained that the system was mixing up faces they had marked as “familiar,” a customer support representative in the forum advised them to delete all of their labels and start over.

Mr. Marconi, the Google spokesman, said that “our goal is to prevent these types of mistakes from ever happening.” He added that the company had improved its technology “by partnering with experts and diversifying our image datasets.”

In 2019, Google tried to improve a facial-recognition feature for Android smartphones by increasing the number of people with dark skin in its data set. But the contractors whom Google had hired to collect facial scans reportedly resorted to a troubling tactic to compensate for that dearth of diverse data: They targeted homeless people and students. Google executives called the incident “very disturbing” at the time.

The Fix?

While Google worked behind the scenes to improve the technology, it never allowed users to judge those efforts.

Margaret Mitchell, a researcher and co-founder of Google’s Ethical AI group, joined the company after the gorilla incident and collaborated with the Photos team. She said in a recent interview that she was a proponent of Google’s decision to remove “the gorillas label, at least for a while.”

“You have to think about how often someone needs to label a gorilla versus perpetuating harmful stereotypes,” Dr. Mitchell said. “The benefits don’t outweigh the potential harms of doing it wrong.”

Dr. Ordóñez, the professor, speculated that Google and Apple could now be capable of distinguishing primates from humans, but that they didn’t want to enable the feature given the possible reputational risk if it misfired again.

Google has since released a more powerful image analysis product, Google Lens, a tool to search the web with photos rather than text. Wired discovered in 2018 that the tool was also unable to identify a gorilla.

Google’s Photo App Still Can’t Find Gorillas. And Neither Can Apple’s. (45)

When we showed Lens a photo of a dog, it was able to suggest its likely breed.

But when we showed it a gorilla, a chimpanzee, a baboon, and an orangutan, Lens seemed to be stumped, refusing to label what was in the image and surfacing only “visual matches” — photos it deemed similar to the original picture.

For gorillas, it showed photos of other gorillas, suggesting that the technology recognizes the animal but that the

company is afraid of labeling it.

Google’s Photo App Still Can’t Find Gorillas. And Neither Can Apple’s. (46)

(Video) Beopardy 2022 Marathon

When we showed Lens a photo of a dog, it was able to suggest its likely breed.

But when we showed it a gorilla, a chimpanzee, a baboon, and an orangutan, Lens seemed to be stumped, refusing to label what was in the image and surfacing only “visual matches” — photos it deemed similar to the original picture.

For gorillas, it showed photos of other gorillas, suggesting that the technology recognizes the animal but that the company is afraid of labeling it.

These systems are never foolproof, said Dr. Mitchell, who is no longer working at Google. Because billions of people use Google’s services, even rare glitches that happen to only one person out of a billion users will surface.

“It only takes one mistake to have massive social ramifications,” she said, referring to it as “the poisoned needle in a haystack.”

Nico Grant is a technology reporter covering Google from San Francisco. Previously, he spent five years at Bloomberg News, where he focused on Google and cloud computing. @nicoagrant

Kashmir Hill is a tech reporter based in New York. She writes about the unexpected and sometimes ominous ways technology is changing our lives, particularly when it comes to our privacy. @kashhill

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Google’s Photo App Still Can’t Find Gorillas. And Neither Can Apple’s.? ›

Michael Marconi, a Google spokesman, said Google had prevented its photo app from labeling anything as a monkey or ape because it decided the benefit “does not outweigh the risk of harm.” Apple declined to comment on users' inability to search for most primates on its app.

Why can't I find my photos in Google Photos? ›

If you're missing photos or videos from other apps or devices, check your device folders. On your Android phone or tablet, open Google Photos . At the bottom, tap Library Find the folder under Photos on device. If available, open your device folders to find your missing item.

Why are my old Google Photos not showing up? ›

Clear the Cache and Data in your Google Photos App. The first thing we recommend you should do to fix Google Photos not showing all photos on Android is to erase the app cache and data. Sometimes, the accumulated cache and data may corrupt, which causes the Photos app to misbehave.

Why is Google Photos not working? ›

Clear Google Photos Cache (Android)

Over amount of Google Photos cache data can lead to upload errors on Android. Here's how you can clear the Google Photos cache on Android and start from scratch. Step 1: Long-press on the Google Photos app and open the app info menu. Step 2: Go to Storage & cache menu.

Does Google Photos work on iPhone? ›

Live photos when you use the Google Photos app on your iPhone or iPad.

Where did Google Photos go? ›

If you can't find a photo in Google Photos, it might be in your device folders. You can only find your device folders on your phone. Albums. Under "Photos on device," check your device folders.

What happened to all my Google Photos? ›

Check your account. Some photos may look like they disappeared because you're in a different account. What you need to do is to confirm whether the currently logged-in account is the account to which you backed up the photos, if not, please log out, and then log in with the correct account.

How do I find old photos on my old Google Account? ›

1.2 Restore Photos from Google Account Trash

Step #1 – Go to the Google account page, and on the left of the page, click "Trash." Step #2 – Browse all of your deleted files and locate the photo you want to recover. Step #3 – Right-click on the photo and press "Restore."

How do I get Google Photos back up? ›

Check your backup
  1. Open Google Photos .
  2. At the top right, tap your account profile photo or initial Photos settings .
  3. Tap Back up.
  4. Check your settings: Back up: Make sure that 'Back up' is turned on. Backup account: Make sure that you back up your photos and videos to the right Google Account.

Is Google doing away with Google Photos? ›

Google is ending free unlimited (compressed) Photos storage tomorrow. The company first announced the move in November 2020 and later confirmed that even upcoming Pixel phones aren't going to be exempt from the adjustment later.

Will Google Photos shut down? ›

Key Highlights. In its latest move, Google is now shutting down its popular Google Photos free unlimited storage. The company has stated that they will be ending the free service from June 1, 2021. Post the date, all the photos which will be uploaded will be counted against your free data limit of 15GB.

Do Google Photos stay forever? ›

How long do I have until my content gets deleted? If your account is subject to this policy change, we'll attempt to give you ample notice (at least three months) before your content may be deleted. Your content will be eligible for deletion when you have been over your storage quota for 2 years.

Is Google Photos better than Apple photos? ›

If you just want to find a reliable place to store your photos and videos online, Google Photos is the right choice. If you are an iOS or macOS user, iCloud is great for you to try because it is pre-installed and can sync across all these devices.

How do I get photos from Google Photos to my iPhone? ›

Save your photos or videos
  1. On your iPhone or iPad, open the Google Photos app .
  2. Select a photo or video.
  3. Tap More. Download.

Does Google Photos delete from iPhone? ›

If you delete a photo or video that's backed up in Google Photos, it will stay in your trash for 60 days. If you permanently delete an item from your iPhone or iPad without it being backed up in Google Photos, it will stay in your trash for 30 days, then be deleted forever. Learn how to turn on back up and sync.

What is the difference between Google Photos and Google Gallery? ›

Learn more. The gallery app is a simple tool to view, manage, and organize images and videos on your Android phone. Google photos is an image hosting and sync service that makes images available immediately across platforms. It also happens to be an image-sharing tool to easily share photos with others.

Does deleting photos delete from Google Photos? ›

What happens when you remove photos & videos from your phone. If you remove copies of photos and videos on your Android device, they're now deleted but, you still can: See your photos and videos, including the ones you just removed, in the Google Photos app and

Did Google Photos change? ›

Google Photos has a newly redesigned library interface. The most striking change is a new carousel of buttons along the top of the screen that lets you choose from 'All' (photos), 'Your albums', 'On device' and 'Shared albums'.

How do I find my Google Photos from my old phone? ›

  1. Install Google Photos on the old phone.
  2. Open Google Photos once installed.
  3. When the app asks for a backup account, select your Google Account.
  4. In the app, tap the three lines in the upper-left corner.
  5. Tap Settings.
  6. Tap Backup & sync.
  7. Tap Backup device folders.
  8. Enable all listed folders(apps)

Does Google Photos backup to all accounts? ›

All the photos you take on your phone can be backed up and saved to your Google Account, so you can find them on any device where you're signed in. info Settings and features vary by device and Android version. The steps might be different on your phone.

How do I retrieve photos from the cloud? ›

In Photos on, click the Recently Deleted album in the sidebar. Select the photos or videos you want to recover, then click Recover.

How can I see Google Photos 4 years ago? ›

When you open Google Photos, the app displays your photos in date order. The photos you uploaded recently appear at the top. You'll need to scroll down to see the pictures you took in the past.

Can I manually back up Google Photos? ›

Backup Google Photos on Android & iPhone

Open the app, and agree to give the app permission to access your folders. Sign in to your Google account. In the top right of the app, tap your account profile photo. Select Google Photos settings and then Backup & sync.

How do I get my photos to show up on Google Photos? ›

Get started with Google Photos
  1. Step 1: Open Photos. Go to Google Photos. If you aren't signed in to your Google Account, click Go to Google Photos and sign in.
  2. Step 2: Find your photos. When you open Google Photos, you'll find all the photos and videos backed up to your Google Account.

How do I get my photos back on Google Photos? ›

Restore photos & videos
  1. On your Android phone or tablet, open the Google Photos app .
  2. At the bottom, tap Library Trash .
  3. Touch and hold the photo or video you want to restore.
  4. At the bottom, tap Restore. The photo or video will be back: In your phone's gallery app. In your Google Photos library. In any albums it was in.

Why are my photos not showing up in Google Drive? ›

Reset Google Photos application data. Try to reset Google Photos data on your device, it may solve the photos uploaded to Google Photos not backing up or showing. Step 1. Navigate to Settings, click Apps or Applications, then select Photos, Storage, and Clear Data in order.


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