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Google puts women on US currency with an AR workaround

The Notable Women app takes on heightened meaning after the plan to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill was pushed back.

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Google developed an app with former US Treasurer Rosie Rios that uses AR to put historical American women on US currency.

Notable Women/Screenshot by CNET

In May, the Trump administration said it was pushing back a plan to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. But with a new Google app, you can see Tubman on the bill now. 

The app, called Notable Women, was developed by Google and former US Treasurer Rosie Rios. It uses augmented reality to let people see what it would look like if women were on US currency. Here's how it works: Place any US bill in front of your phone's camera, and the app uses digital filters -- like one you'd see on Instagram or Snapchat -- to overlay a new portrait on the bill. Users can choose from a database of 100 women, including the civil rights icon Rosa Parks and astronaut Sally Ride.

"It's not just an image," Rios said at a launch event Monday. "It's a consciousness, a trigger, of something bigger." 

The event was held at Moreau Catholic High School in Hayward, California, about 30 miles east of San Francisco, where Rios graduated in 1983. (By the way, I also graduated from Moreau and, after meeting Rios earlier this year, she invited me to attend the event.)

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Rios showed off the app during an event in her hometown of Hayward, CA.

Richard Nieva/CNET

Rios, who served as US Treasurer from 2009 to 2016 during the Obama administration, has been one of the strongest proponents of getting a woman on US currency. She spearheaded an effort in polling Americans on who they thought should be on a redesigned $20 bill. In 2016, Harriet Tubman was chosen to be the new face of the bill. The design was set to be unveiled next year for the anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

But the Notable Women app takes on a heightened meaning since Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in May said the rollout would be pushed to at least 2026, citing technical reasons. 

Asked about the plan's pushback, Rios said it was challenging to face the setbacks after Timothy Geithner, the former US Treasury Secretary who approved the project, left office. In the meantime, the bill that has always been next in line to be redesigned is the $10 note, she said. 

"Things don't always work out how they want to work out," Rios said during the event. "It pains me every day. It's not over. It's definitely not over." 

The Notable Women app, which Rios first debuted in May at a school in New York City, is meant for educational purposes -- the project includes lesson plans for educators teaching various age groups. The app's launch also comes as Silicon Valley struggles with diversity and representation challenges. New hires at Google, for example, were 33% women last year. The percentage drops dramatically when it comes to black and Latino new hires, at less than 12%. 

The Notable Women project came together two years ago when Rios spoke at Google's New York City office. For the app, Google licensed the photos of all 100 women and got permission from their estates, Rios said. Google didn't immediately respond to a request for comment about the project.

"The beauty of the app is we don't have to wait," she said. "It's not just about seeing their face on currency. It's about learning more about them and the contributions they've made to our history."

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