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Facebook’s AI Looks Beyond Facial Recognition

Apr 3, 2016

Describing an image using text is a critical way for a visually impaired person to understand the meaning behind a picture. Current Website Accessibility Guidelines require an image that portrays something essential to the user, be tagged with alternative text (Alt text), a description explaining the nature or contents of the image, such as “Bird catching a worm in the morning” or “Activate User Account”. This text is what the assistive technology (AT), such as screen readers, conveys aloud to the user.

For over 15 years, The Bureau of Internet Accessibility (BoIA) has been helping companies comply with guidelines like this and make their websites accessible to everyone, including the 1 in 5 people with visual, auditory, physical and other disabilities. When a website is designed and developed with accessibility in mind, it allows all individuals the power to better navigate and understand it.

But a recent debate has sparked some people to question if all sites should be held to these same standards, such as those that fall under social media. Should people using social media be required to add these tags to images as well?

Many think not, and that it would cause unnecessary burden on the users of these sites. “In a perfect world all users of social media would take a moment to provide a brief description of an image being posted,” stated Ryan Jones, a Certified Vision Rehabilitation Therapist from the Services & Training Department at Freedom Scientific. “This is not, and probably never will be, the reality though as most people either don’t have the time, or don’t understand the importance of providing a text description of an image for those of us who cannot see it.”

Finding a seamless solution that would help AT users “see” an image, but also not be an inconvenience to others must be what got the Accessibility Team at Facebook thinking. If tests currently being performed by Facebook go well, the social media giant may be releasing some revolutionary tools to the general public next year that would launch the Internet into the future by exploiting the potential of, wait for it, artificial intelligence.

Early information about these exciting advances indicate that the tools being created would have the ability to classify the items in, and the composition of an image without prior human intervention. Simply put, the technology would describe a picture to the user.

Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clark dreamed of this back in 1968 as is evidenced in their screenplay for “2001: A Space Odyssey”. In one scene, Dave, the human, is speaking with Hal, the sentient computer, about some drawings Dave had sketched. Hal says “That's a very nice rendering, Dave. I think you've improved a great deal. Can you hold it a bit closer? That's Dr. Hunter, isn't it?” What used to be fiction, seems to be close to reality, and this technology could be a major milestone in the advancement of Website Accessibility.

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