Facebook AI Helps the Blind ‘See’ Images

When Matt King first got on Facebook eight years ago, the blind engineer had to weigh whether it was worth spending an entire Saturday morning checking whether a friend of his was actually in his friend list. Such were the tools at the time for the visually impaired -- almost nonexistent.

Today, thanks to text-to-audio software, it just takes a few seconds for him to accomplish the same task. And because of a new face recognition service the social network is rolling out Tuesday, he can now learn which friends are in photos, even those who haven't been tagged by another user.

The facial recognition technology, which uses artificially intelligent algorithms, doesn't appear to have changed much since Facebook began using it in 2010 to suggest the identities of people in photos. But after incorporating feedback from billions of user interactions, Facebook felt confident enough to push its use into new territory.

"What we're doing with AI is making it possible for anybody to enjoy the experience," says 52-year-old King, who lost his sight in college due to a degenerative eye disease and now works at Facebook as an accessibility specialist. In addition to the improved facial recognition, Facebook has in recent years also automated descriptions of what's happening in a photo. (Those remain relatively primitive, as they're limited to only about 100 or so concepts and roughly a dozen action verbs.)

For the sighted, the new facial recognition settings will also help crack down on imposters. Starting Tuesday, Facebook will notify you if someone has uploaded your face as their profile picture. And just in time for alcohol-laden holiday parties, you can also be notified if someone in your friend network has posted a compromising picture of you without explicitly tagging you.

That check is not perfect. If you don't want a drunken karaoke...

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