Facebook is ready to help blind people ‘see’ images via artificial intelligence. The new feature, called automatic alternate text, works with existing screen reader apps used by blind and visually impaired people. The AI-generated descriptions identify objects and scenes but there is no facial recognition –although we can imagine it’s on the way. So you if you share an image with A visually impaired friend it won’t tell him or her who is in the picture or what everyone is wearing, but it might read “Image may contain: three people, smiling, birthday cake.”
There are more than 246 million people around the world with severe visual impairments and 39 million who are blind, according to Facebook. More than 2 billion photos are shared daily on Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp. Automatic alternate text can help social media be more inclusive.
Facebook’s automatic alternate text introduction follows Twitter’s announcement last week of a 420 image character description field also intended for visually impaired people who use screen readers with mobile devices. With the Twitter app the person who composes the Tweet also writes the description. The Facebook feature automatically attempts to describe the image, with the disclaimer “Image may contain.” Of course, a Facebook post creator has plenty of space to describe images already, while Twitter limits regular text to just 140 characters. In each case blind and visually impaired people get less of a raw deal.
Facebook’s automatic alternate text feature is available now for people who use iOS devices in English in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The company plans to support more platforms, languages, and market in the near future.
The accuracy of Facebook’s automatic alternate text feature matters and will likely improve over time.
We imagine that facial recognition is already on the planning board. On the other hand, perhaps it’s better not to attempt to identify people in photos Until the tech is flawless. Imagine if a Facebook screen reader misidentified and called out the wrong names. In some circumstances that could be pretty embarrassing.