12 Apr Facebook launches new AI accessibility tool
Mark Zuckerberg has announced an exciting new development for Facebook, which should significantly improve accessibility for users with visual impairments. The newly developed technology uses artificial intelligence (AI) to audibly describe the images on the site. AI has been used from everything from medical diagnosis to stock trading but this is the first time it’s being used in this way by any online channel.
Announced in a video on the site on 5th April – generating over 3m views within the first day of being uploaded – the AI will help compensate for the lack of ‘alt text’ used on Facebook images, and according to Zuckerberg is “a great use of AI technology, and an important step towards making sure everyone has equal access to information and is included in the conversation.”
Up until now, websites have been made more accessible to those with visual impairments through the use of screen readers, a feature which turns text into spoken words. Many websites use ‘alt text’ – effectively a hidden description of the image which is picked up by a screen reader and spoken to the user. Alt text has been considered good practice in website accessibility for some time.
Images shared on Facebook tend to be uploaded by individual users meaning alt text isn’t really an option. This creates barriers within the image-centric world of social media for many of the 285 million people estimated to be visually impaired worldwide.
The new AI tech is capable of analysing an image and describing its constituent parts, a measure which Facebook believes will greatly improve accessibility. However, to what extent this will be the case remains to be seen; Will it be able to describe an image featuring rather more obscure and complex elements than just a smiling face or a bicycle?
Matt King, a Facebook employee who is himself blind, was involved in the development of the technology and says that though the development is not yet perfect, it’s a big step forward. King hopes that in the future technology can be further refined to describe more details and nuances in images, but believes the current capability is in itself a triumph and a “huge jump” for blind users.
It’s positive to see Facebook developing new ways to be more inclusive, and while the resource may not yet be perfect, it’s certainly a step in the right direction. Hopefully similar technology will now be rolled out across other sites, improving accessibility there too and creating a more accessible world.