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Flickr misfires with automated photo tags

The image-recognition machinery behind the Yahoo site stumbles as it tries to interpret photos of black people and concentration camps.

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Flickr's auto-tags for a concentration camp photo include the terms "jungle gym" and "sport." screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

Flickr's new system for auto-tagging photos is slapping certain images with insulting and inappropriate terms.

Launched earlier this month, the new tagging system is supposed to automatically organize photos into specific groups by using something Flickr called "advanced image recognition technology." The goal is to offer more ways to find and categorize photos by using general tags beyond the specific ones manually applied by the photo's owner. But the attempt to use such general tags appears to be backfiring, The Guardian reported Wednesday.

Some of the automated tags appearing on certain photos are turning out to be offensive, triggering complaints from Flickr users. As one example cited by The Guardian, a photo of a black man was auto-tagged with such terms as "blackandwhite," "monochrome," "animal" and "ape," though the "ape" tag has since been removed. A photo of a white woman with color on her face was also tagged with the term "animal."

In another example of auto-insensitivity, a photo showing the interior of the Dachau concentration camp was tagged with the terms "sport" and "jungle gym."

The blunders of the new auto-tagging point to the hazards of machinery automating a process sometimes better handled manually by real people. Flickr users have already been griping that the new auto-tags are too general and broad to be of much use, The Guardian said, while some have questioned the whole idea of introducing the system in the first place. One user who voiced his complaints said that Flickr should shut down the entire auto-tagging system until the company can get it right.

Owned by Yahoo, Flickr faces more competition from other sites that offer photo sharing, including Facebook, Dropbox and Google, so it needs to keep introducing new features. It also has to contend with a vast amount of user photos, some of which may be difficult to find without tagging them with even general terms.

Flickr has already manually removed some of the offensive tags on certain photos. The site also acknowledged its screw-up by and promised to do better as expressed in the following statement sent to The Guardian:

We are aware of issues with inaccurate auto-tags on Flickr and are working on a fix. While we are very proud of this advanced image-recognition technology, we're the first to admit there will be mistakes and we are constantly working to improve the experience. If you delete an incorrect tag, our algorithm learns from that mistake and will perform better in the future. The tagging process is completely automated -- no human will ever view your photos to tag them."

Flickr did not immediately respond to CNET's request for comment.