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Facebook programs computers to describe photos for the blind

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Facebook draws upon artificial intelligence program to describe photos for the blind and visually impaired

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MENLO PARK, Calif. (AP) -- Facebook is training its computers to become seeing-eye guides for blind and visually impaired people as they scroll through the pictures posted on the world's largest online social network.

The feature rolling out Tuesday on Facebook's iPhone and iPad apps interprets what's in a picture using a form of artificial intelligence that recognizes faces and objects. VoiceOver, a screen reader built into the software powering the iPhone and iPad, must be turned on for Facebook's photo descriptions to be read. For now, the feature will only be available in English.

Until now, people relying on screen readers on Facebook would only hear that a person had shared a photo without any elaboration.

The photo descriptions initially will be confined to a vocabulary of 100 words in a restriction that will prevent the computer from providing a lot of details. For instance, the automated voice may only tell a user that a photo features three people smiling outdoors without adding that the trio also has drinks in their hands. Or it may say the photo is of pizza without adding that there's pepperoni and olives on top of it.

Facebook is being careful with the technology, called "automatic alternative text," in an attempt to avoid making a mistake that offends its audience. Google learned the risks of automation last year when an image recognition feature in its Photos app labeled a black couple as gorillas, prompting the company to issue an apology.


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