Google+ Gambles on Image Recognition

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Google made one of its more ambitious claims to machine intelligence this week when it rolled out an update to Google’s Google+ photo features. Among other helpful features  – for instance, better Auto Enhance and Auto Awesome editing — Google’s social network now recognizes “over a thousand different objects” and can find matching photos when you search on specific terms.

PHOTOS: It’s a Small, Small World

Since Google+ launched in 2011, I’ve had its mobile apps automatically backing up photos taken with various review phones — and most of those pictures still lack captions, meaning G+ image recognition won’t have anything else to fall back on. So I thought I’d test the augmented version of a feature Google quietly rolled out earlier this year with some sample searches.

Snow: Google presented two shots from skiing in West Virginia and two showing the snowcapped peak of Mount Shasta, but also one of a light-rail train in Santa Clara, Calif., and another showing a rainy construction scene in Tysons Corner, Va.

Sunset: The site plucked out a photo of San Francisco at dusk (which may not count, since I had “sunset” in the caption), and another of the sun setting over rural Maryland, but missed a panorama of a Seattle sunset. ”Sunrise,” however, found a shot of the setting sun in Austin that the prior search had overlooked.

Moon: Amazingly enough, it nailed two photos of Earth’s satellite taken from my front porch (and a third that had a much smaller moon visible but used that keyword in its caption).

Sky: This pulled in multiple shots of the view above during the day and night — and one of a Windows-install error message that, with its blue background and reflected glare from an overhead light, does look uncannily like the sky.

BLOG: Handwrite Your Gmails

Windows: Google+ found three photos of windows and sliding-glass doors, then got confused by pictures of glass tiles and one of a framed photo. It did not, however, find that Windows error message.

Airplane: This was a total failure, missing all of the pictures I’ve taken of planes and instead only locating two iOS screengrabs that highlighted the airplane-mode switch. And yet “aircraft” quickly found four photos of various commercial jets.

Building: G+ yielded an impressive range of structures from across the country, with the only partially-false positives being photos of the inside of a house and of a stretch of the Berlin Wall.

Face: Fail. Google found two portraits of me but missed every other photo that featured a prominent visage. I was especially disappointed that G+ didn’t find a few adorable close-ups of our toddler taken as she was grabbing for a phone.

Phone: In addition to three pictures and one screenshot that featured actual phones, G+ also picked up a picture of two tablets, a couple of shots of the same slim point-and-shoot camera — and a set of spinning numbers at a playground, which I suppose Google saw as a phone keypad. Meanwhile, Google missed dozens of other phone photos I’ve taken.

Sign: An Android tablet showing the “sign in” prompt, a warning to cyclists not to get tripped up by streetcar tracks in Portland, and a couple of photos with “sign” in their captions.

Flowers: Mostly foliage from my garden, but also an array of Post-It notes stuck to the window of a nearby Apple Store with remembrances of Steve Jobs. Oh, wait: One photo included flowers left at the base of the window.

So: Good news, everyone! Google is not as omniscient as you’ve feared or hoped. Well, not yet.

Credit: Google+ screen capture
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