For us sighted folk, it’s difficult to imagine an image-less Facebook News Feed, where a screen reader tells you that your friend uploaded a photo… and nothing more. But thanks to Facebook’s new “automatic alternate text” tool and the power of artificial intelligence, that reality is no more.
Now millions of blind and severely visually impaired users of Facebook will begin to “see” the images in their News Feeds too. As Facebook explained in the tool’s official announcement:
With more than 39 million people who are blind, and over 246 million who have a severe visual impairment, many people may feel excluded from the conversation around photos on Facebook. We want to build technology that helps the blind community experience Facebook the same way others enjoy it.
What they came up with uses Facebook’s object recognition technology based on “a neural network that has billions of parameters and is trained with millions of examples.” Now, a user’s iOS screen reader will not only tell them there is a photo as they scroll, but what’s in the photo as well.
So instead of “Joan Smith, photo” you get “Joan Smith, photo, image may contain: tree, sky, outdoor.” Here’s a video of the tech in action:
Facebook is the first to admit that the tech is just the beginning, but they’re excited about the possibilities:
While this technology is still nascent,” they write, “tapping its current capabilities to describe photos is an important step toward providing our visually impaired community the same benefits and enjoyment that everyone else gets from photos.”
For now, the technology is still limited to English-speaking users who use an iOS device, but Facebook promises to add more platforms and languages “soon.”