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Facebook’s New Feature Writes Photo Captions for Blind Users


FILE - This Feb. 19, 2014, photo shows the Facebook app icon on an iPhone. Facebook is rolling out a feature that will interpret what's in a photo using a form of artificial intelligence to describe image content for the blind and visually impaired.

Facebook launched a new artificial intelligence (AI) feature Tuesday that will automatically write photo captions for blind and visually impaired users scrolling through their news feeds.

The AI feature is part of Facebook's alternative text project and will interpret the contents of a picture using face and object recognition technology.

According to Facebook, the world has around 300 million blind and visually impaired people, and now, if those people are using the iOS mobile system, they will hear a short descriptive list of items in a photo as they scroll past. Before the update, they would just hear the word "photo," and a picture would appear of the person who posted it.

During the initial roll out, descriptions will be restricted to a 100-word vocabulary that will prevent users from hearing a lot of detail about a photo. Visually impaired users may hear something like “Image may contain three people, smiling, outdoors,” but the AI won’t mention that the people are eating or drinking.

The cautiousness on Facebook’s part stems from worries that the company might face an embarrassing situation like the one Google saw when it rolled out its own image recognition software last year. Google was forced to issue an apology after its photos app classified a photo of a black couple as gorillas.

‘When everyone is connected, we all benefit’

Eventually Facebook said it would enhance the technology so that it is able to give more precise descriptions of what’s happening in a picture and possibly answer questions a user could have about a picture.

“Each advancement in object recognition technology means that the Facebook Accessibility team will be able to make technology even more accessible for more people,” Facebook said in a statement on its website. “When people are connected, they can achieve extraordinary things as individuals and as a community — and when everyone is connected, we all benefit.”

While the initial roll-out is solely for users with iOS capable mobile devices, Facebook plans to add the AI technology to its Android app and make it available through web browsers in the near future.

According to Facebook, people post nearly two billion photos a day on its social network, and across several other apps run by Facebook, including Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp.