Facebook to Use AI to Describe Photos to Blind Users

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Facebook is making it easier for the blind and visually impaired to see and interact with friends' photos.

Automatic alternative text generates an image description using object recognition technology. Previously, the social network announced only the name of the person who posted the photo on Facebook, followed by the term "photo." Now, anyone operating a screen reader on an iOS device can hear a list of items in each picture: for example, "Image may contain three people, smiling, outdoors."

"Now we can offer a richer description of what's in a photo thanks to automatic alt text," software engineers Shaomei Wu and Hermes Pique and head of accessibility Jeffrey Wieland wrote in a blog post.

Automatic alt text rolls out this week to iOS screen readers set to English, but will be available in other languages and platforms "soon," the social network says.

"While this technology is still nascent, 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," the Facebook blog said.

In November, the Facebook AI Research (FAIR) team achieved "new milestones," including a "state-of-the-art system that segments, or distinguishes between, objects in a photo" 30 percent faster and using 10 times less training data than previous industry benchmarks. So when a friend posts an snapshot of their cat sunbathing on the sofa, Facebook's AI (pictured) can describe the image in enough detail for the user to form a mental image.

Twitter, meanwhile, just last week began allowing iOS and Android users to add descriptions, or alternative text (alt text), to images. Enable the feature via the "compose image descriptions" option in the app's accessibility settings. Summaries are limited to 420 characters.

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