Google and the Monk Scale: How did the 10 skin tones scale come about and how will it be used?

What is happening

Google has adopted a more diverse skin tone scale to reshape its artificial intelligence systems.

why is it important

The new 10-shade scale could reduce racial bias and improve the representation of skin tone on popular Google services.

Google is working to improve the representation of skin tone in its services. In mid-May, the tech giant announced its adoption of the Monk Skin Tone (MST) scale, a more comprehensive 10-tone scale that it began using to test and train its artificial intelligence systems. .

The use of the scale is designed to allow Google services to better see and understand images that feature people with darker skin tones. It’s a direct response to problems with the system that Google and other companies have used to classify the skin tones of people of color.

Read more: Google is adopting a 10-step skin tone scale for its AI to understand diversity

You can see an example of this AI technology at work in the United States: the ability to refine makeup-related queries based on skin tone in Google Search. Separately, the company has also added filters suitable for darker skin tones in Google Photos. And that’s just the beginning.

As Google expands its use of the Monk Skin Tone Scale to new services and other parts of the world, there’s a lot to learn about Google. Here’s what you need to know about how it’s trying to improve the representation of skin tone and how Google got there.

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The Google Monk Skin Tone Scale: What is it?


Photography may be skewed towards lighter skin tones

By the 1950s, Kodak dominated the motion picture industry, selling the majority of color film in the United States. If you used Kodak film to photograph, you had to go to a Kodak photo lab to have it developed and printed, where you would inevitably buy more Kodak film to use.

Eventually, the US federal government stepped in and broke its monopoly, and so Kodak developed a small printer that any film lab across the country could use in their stores to print Kodak films. As part of these kits, Kodak would also provide labs with reference prints to help film lab employees calibrate color, shadow, and light. These references were called Shirley cards.

These Shirley cards primarily featured brown white women and excluded just about everyone, including those with darker skin tones. At that time, lighter skin was the chemical basis of photo technology, and so these cards showed it. As a result, darker skin tones were overlooked and therefore harder to expose properly, which helped perpetuate the myth that darker skin is harder to photograph than lighter skin.

Shirley cards were named after Shirley Page, a former Kodak employee who was the first person to appear on these color reference cards. Eventually more models were introduced – mostly brunettes and whites.

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Google’s Real Tone feature on the Pixel 6

Now, our digital smartphones have largely replaced analog films. Yet the racial prejudices that existed at the time are still there. Even in your camera app, lighter skin tones are still preferred – computational photography on smartphones is known to overexpose and desaturate darker skin tones.

And that’s why last year Google released its first AI-powered tool to help combat racial bias in photography. Real Tone, exclusive to Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, improves the way darker skin tones appear in photos and video. Google worked with a team of diverse image experts to break down the process of correctly capturing darker skin tones and better train the decision-making algorithms used on their phones.

Monk skin tones used in real tone filters

Real Tone filters improve the representation of darker skin tones in photos.


For Real Tone, Google focused on six areas to improve the camera on Pixel phones, to make it more inclusive and create more authentic and accurate portraits for darker skin tones:

  • Face detection: The camera app is better at detecting faces with darker skin tones.
  • Auto white balance: Darker skin tones are displayed with a more nuanced color temperature.
  • Auto exposure: When adjusting exposure, darker skin tones appear neither too light nor too dark.
  • lens flare: This reduces the negative effects of lens flare, which can make darker skin tones look washed out.
  • Unblurred face: Reduce image blur for darker skinned people in low light.
  • Google Photos: Google Photos’ auto-enhance feature works best for darker skin tones.

What is the Monk Skin Tone Scale?

At Google I/O 2022, Google announced that it had begun integrating the Monk Skin Tone Scale into services, such as Google Search and Google Photos. The plan is to use the Monk Skin Tone Scale to help correct skin tone bias by better representing historically underrepresented skin tones.

The Monk Skin Tone Scale is a new approach to categorizing a more diverse range of skin tones. Google uses it during product development to create more representative datasets for training its AI models so they are more nuanced to detect darker skin tones.

Monk Skin Tone Scale

The Monk Skin Tone Scale.


Ellis Monk, associate professor of sociology at Harvard, developed the skin tone scale a decade ago, and Google adapted it for its own numerical use. Monk has studied extensively how technology intersects with race and ethnicity, particularly in the areas of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and computer vision.

At Google, the 10-shade Monk Skin Tone Scale replaces the Fitzpatrick Scale, a system created by dermatologists and designed to measure exposure to ultraviolet rays. There are only six skin tones, and most of them are for lighter skin tones. Google and other tech companies have relied on the Fitzpatrick Scale for years to rank skin tones for their algorithms and to gauge how well those algorithms are performing.

How is the Monk Skin Tone Scale used?

For now, Google is using the Monk Skin Tone Scale to improve skin representation in two of its popular services: Google Search and Google Photos.

In search, the Monk Skin Tone Scale will help find and present more relevant results for people with darker skin tones. For example, if you search for a query related to makeup, Google will present color chips and a variety of faces that allow you to narrow your search results based on skin tone. This should help you find something like a “winged eyeliner tutorial” photo for darker skin tones.

Monk skin tones used in real tone filters

You will be able to filter photos by skin color in Google search.


Google also used Monk Skin Tone Scale to enhance Google Photos with a series of Real Tone filters specifically designed for darker skin tones. These filters were created with the help of image makers who have experience accurately depicting darker skin tones in photographs, and are now available for use in the Google Photos app for iOS. Android and the web. If you go to the Filters tab of the Google Photos editor, you’ll see new choices like Desert, Honey, Isla, and Playa.

If not, how will Google use the new skin color scale?

Google hopes others will incorporate the monk skin tone scale when tagging photos that appear on the web for image attributes such as hair color and texture. Creators, brands, and publishers can use these metadata options on their images and other web content so that search engines can better recognize them and show them up in searches when relevant.

Illustration of the Google Skin Tone diagram

You will also be able to filter the results by textures and hair colors.


Google has released its Monk Skin Tone Scale classification system under liberal licensing terms, open to any researcher or business. Google hopes other tech companies will incorporate the scale into their own development processes.

And Google will also continue to work with Monk to improve scale, including testing to validate its use in other countries like Mexico, India, Nigeria and Brazil.