Facebook Wields Artificial Intelligence To Help Blind Users ‘See’ Photos

Facebook is rolling out a new feature today that will help people who are blind or otherwise visually impaired know what's contained in a photograph. The feature is called automatic alternative text (or automatic alt text), and it's job is to audibly describe various elements contained in a photo, such as the number of people, objects in the background, and so forth.

Photos are an integral part of the online experience, particularly social networks. Each day, people share over 2 billion photos across Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp. While the majority of users are able to view them, Facebook notes there are more than 39 million people who are blind, and over 246 million with a severe visual impairment.

Facebook Alt Text

"We want to build technology that helps the blind community experience Facebook the same way others enjoy it," Facebook said. "That's why today we're introducing automatic alternative text."

Facebook is essentially training its PCs to recognize objects and then describe them to people. The underlying technology is based on a neural network that has billions of parameters and millions of examples to tap into. It's an artificial intelligence scheme that gets smarter and more capable with time.

"Before today, people using screen readers would only hear the name of the person who shared the photo, followed by the term 'photo' when they came upon an image in News Feed. Now we can offer a richer description of what’s in a photo thanks to automatic alt text. For instance, someone could now hear, 'Image may contain three people, smiling, outdoors,'" Facebook explains.

Automatic alt text is launching first on iOS screen readers set to English. Over time, Facebook expand the feature to include other languages and platforms.