Many businesses are hiring people with disabilities, but Facebook is taking it a step further by putting a blind engineer in charge of a project that can affect millions of people. Matt King is using his disability to his company’s advantage by creating an artificial intelligence tool that helps visually impaired people “see” what’s going on and stay connected.
Halfway through Matt King’s presentation, the screen goes dark.
It’s the kind of glitch that might make a man sweat in front of the audience. But this is no glitch. King has done it deliberately to bring us into his world, however disorienting it might be for the rest of the room.
“I’m going to put it into a state that’s more like how I operate,” King says with just a hint of mischief. He looks less like a computer engineer than an ex-marine, but with the surprisingly cheerful and calm speech of someone who grew up in the Pacific Northwest.
Before we can fully internalize his words, King is drowned out by a mechanical voice. “Screen curtain on.”
King begins tapping the arrow keys to scroll through a Facebook timeline, with the voice leading the way. “Heading Level 5. Link. February 26, at 3:53 pm.” Next, it recites the contents of the friend’s post. “What a view, I really like my new camera.” Then nothing. The voice is quiet. King is quiet. There is no photo to enjoy. The screen is still dark.
One billion people check their Facebook feeds every day, mindlessly scrolling through texts and photos to keep up with friends and family. King joined Facebook in June as the company’s first blind engineer to make sure millions of visually impaired Internet users around the world are not handicapped in their personal relationships simply because they can’t do the same.
After the silent pause in his demo, King unveils the result of the first big project he’s been a part of at Facebook. The same mechanical voice uses artificial intelligence to identify broad but crucial elements of the friend’s photograph. The image, it says, “may contain sky, tree and outdoor.”
A second photograph from another Facebook contact is said to include “pizza.” Vague, sure, but at least it tells you something to keep you in the loop — more than that dark screen.
This AI-powered tool, officially released in its applications on Tuesday, is part of what Paul Schroeder, VP of programs and policy at the American Foundation for the Blind, described to me as a “tipping point with accessibility.” The same technology that some scoff at or even fear today — artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, voice-powered personal assistants and robotics — could fundamentally transform the lives of the visually impaired in the coming years.
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