How Facebook is using artificial intelligence to help the blind 'see'

For blind and visually impaired users, Facebook's timeline can be a bit of a mystery, but new software can help them feel less out of the loop. 

Karly Domb Sadof/AP/File
This photo shows the Facebook app icon on an iPhone in New York. A feature rolling out Tuesday on Facebook's iPhone app interprets what's in a photo using a form of artificial intelligence to recognize faces and objects for blind and visually impaired people as they scroll through the pictures posted on the world's largest online social network

Facebook has increasingly become a visual medium, allowing users to share endless streams of photos with their friends. But imagine not being able to participate in the visual experience. That is the reality for more than 39 million people who are blind and more than 246 million others who have severe visual impairment.

But now, Facebook just got much more accessible.

On Monday, the social media giant launched the new "automatic alternative text" feature that uses object recognition technology to provide a basic spoken description of a photo's contents to people who are using screen readers. Previously, the readers automated voice could describe only the name of the person who shared the photo, the text that accompanied the photo, and the word “photo.” That meant that when users posted photos without any text, their blind or visually impaired friends were not be able to find out anything about the images.

Of course, outsourcing captions to an artificial intelligence isn't without potential for snafus. Last year Google’s image recognition technology caused a stir when it identified a black couple as gorillas. At least for now, the automated captions will be relatively simple, to minimize potential for problems. A photo taken outdoors with three people smiling, for instance, may omit other extra details, such as what they are holding.

“We’re ... making it possible for people to feel totally included in the social interaction and be able to feel part of it without having to feel awkward, without having to be annoying to all of your friends, being like, ‘What’s so funny in this photo?’ Nobody wants to do that,” Facebook accessibility specialist Matt King told VentureBeat.

For now the feature isn’t available to everyone, but only people using Facebook's iPhone app, and the built-in screen reader must be turned on for for the feature to work. It will be available in English for now, and later in other languages. The company’s representatives also say the feature will come to other platforms in the near future.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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