The company said it had fixed the problem and was working to figure out exactly how it happened.
"We're appalled and genuinely sorry that this happened," a Google representative said in an emailed statement. "We are taking immediate action to prevent this type of result from appearing."
From self-driving cars to photos, Google, like most technology companies, is constantly releasing cutting-edge technologies with the understanding that problems will arise and that it will have to fix them as they do. The idea is that you never know what problems might arise until you get the technologies in the hands of real-world users.
In the case of the Google Photos app - which uses a combination of advanced computer vision and machine-learning techniques to help users collect, search and categorize photos - errors are easy to spot. When the app was unveiled at the company's annual developer show, executives went through carefully staged demonstrations to show how it could recognize landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and give users the ability to search their photos for people, places or things - even things as specific as a particular dog breed.
Of course, in practice, it is much messier. Google Photos mistakes dogs for horses and clocks for hubcaps. In my Google Photos, a picture of a friend's bloody elbow, injured while skateboarding, was labeled "food."
But some mistakes are bigger than others, and Sunday a Brooklyn software developer named Jacky Alciné, who is black, used Twitter to post an image that showed his Google Photos app had labeled a picture of Alciné and a friend as "gorillas." In an interview, he said he figured posting on Twitter would lead to a much quicker fix.
"Using a livestream (like Twitter) as opposed to waiting for a response is a lot more efficient," he said.
This proved correct. Within an hour and a half, Yonatan Zunger, a Google engineer, responded to his post and promised swift action.
That action includes temporarily removing nearly everything having to do with gorillas, including the ability to search for gorillas and the entire gorillas label.
"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," the Google representative added.
© 2015 New York Times News Service