Archived: Google Mistakes Blacks for Gorillas

Google has once again found itself in the midst of a racial controversy.


Jacky Alcine, a computer programmer, was in shock when he found that Google Photo’s facial recognition software categorized him and a friend (both of whom are Black) as gorillas.

He took to Twitter to express his frustration and captured a screenshot of the mistake.

Yonatan Zunger, a senior engineer with Google, responded to Alcine via Twitter to assure him they were working on the problem, insisting that what had happened was “100% Not OK”:

And a spokesperson for Google wrote in a statement: “We’re appalled and genuinely sorry that this happened. We are taking immediate action to prevent this type of result from appearing. There is still clearly a lot of work to do with automatic image labeling, and we’re looking at how we can prevent these types of mistakes from happening in the future.”

Zunger explained that problems with the recognition software and issues with lighting and tone most likely contributed to the mess; he also said it boils down to what he called “ordinary machine learning trouble.”

Initial attempts to correct the problem were unsuccessful, so the company opted to remove the gorilla tag completely until they found a “long term” fix.

However, this is not the first racial controversy Google has been involved with recently. Just in May, Google Maps was under scrutiny when searching for a derogatory word for Blacks followed by the word house brought up the address for the White House. At the time, Google release a similar apology: “Some inappropriate results are surfacing in Google Maps that should not be, and we apologize for any offense this may have caused,” said a Google spokesperson. “Our teams are working to fix this issue quickly.”

While the company seems very quick to apologize after these incidents have already occurred, it is difficult to ignore that their staff by no means champions diversity. Data for 2015 tells that Google’s staff is only 2 percent Black and 3 percent Hispanic. Meanwhile, it is 60 percent white and 31 percent Asian. And senior leaders represent even less diversity, with once again 2 percent being Black and a mere 1 percent being Hispanic, compared to 72 percent white and 23 percent Asian.

Google’s diversity website states, “We’re still not where we want to be when it comes to diversity.” And as more of these racially offensive incidents come to light, it’s clear that the company is still not where its consumers want it to be when it comes to diversity, either.

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