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How Facebook Is Helping the Blind 'see' Pictures Their Friends Share Online

By The Washington Post

April 6, 2016

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Facebook on Tuesday launched Automatic Alternative Text, a tool designed to enable sight-impaired users to "see" pictures posted by friends online.

For this feature to work, users must have Apple's built-in screen reader turned on and select an image in the text. Facebook applies artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to identify basic features in the image and produce a new alt text that the screen reader will share with the user.

The feature will be initially rolled out for the English-language version of Facebook's main iOS, and it will only identify about 100 fundamental concepts because Facebook only wants to suggest an image contains objects its AI tech can reliably recognize, says the company's Jeffrey Wieland.

Automatic Alternative Text developer Matt King says more work must be done online to improve picture accessibility, noting AI and facial-recognition data could be used to inform blind users of who the people in a photo are, instead of only how many there are.

Facebook is among many tech firms and several universities in a working group founded to better prepare students to invent inclusive technology. Other technologies in development follow a similar AI approach to images as Facebook, with Microsoft recently showcasing its SeeingAI app at a developers conference.

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