Facebook hires blind engineer to improve tech

Matt King joined Facebook in June as the company’s first blind engineer. His mission is to improve Facebook for the visually impaired. With Billions of daily users, Facebook is one of the most visited sites on the web. Yet, much of it’s content is driven by visuals and images that software isn’t designed to translate.

King’s first big project at Facebook is to improve this experience for the visually impaired. His software gives broad descriptions of what may be in the photos shared on a users feed. It is the first step in looping a user in on what is on their timeline beyond the artificial intelligence that dictates the words on the screen. This software was officially released by Facebook on Tuesday. At a demo for the new software, the artificial intelligence describes a friend’s photo in the timeline as, “may contain sky, tree and outdoor.” A second photo from another Facebook contact is said to include “pizza.” The references fill a void that was not being addressed. Before this software, a visually impaired user would not have any information about the photo.

Matt King didn’t come into the world completely blind. He was born with  a condition called retinitis pigmentosa, which destroys the retina. This made him legally blind at birth, but still able to see well enough to do schoolwork and ride his bike. But by the time he graduated Notre Dame with and electrical engineering degree, he was totally blind. He joined IBM in 1998, met the accessibility team which worked on making computing more accessible to this with disabilities, and ended up working with them for nearly two decades.

IBM’s accessibility department was created in 1985, well before most of Silicon Valley was thinking about the issue, partly in response to an IBM researcher who had gone blind.“The sense that was happening was that every person who was blind on the planet was losing access to the computer. There was no solution. You couldn’t write an email. You couldn’t go to work. You couldn’t go to school,” says Schwerdtfeger, an early member of the accessibility team who later worked closely with King.

“There were other blind people and several of them provided good input from the standpoint of a user, but what Matt brought to the table was an understanding of the technology underneath,” says one current IBM staffer. Looking for a chance to make more of an impact, Matt King left IBM and joined Facebook. The decision was somewhat personal for him, as King remembers the disappointment in creating his own Facebook page, and not know what was in the pictures. “Here’s one more thing, just like driving a car. Here’s another barrier for people who are blind,” said King. Now he is in a position to change that, and improve the platform for all its users. Kings technology will help the visually impaired, as well as those in situations where they cannot easily see their screens, such as when driving.

“The fact that you have somebody who has worked on accessibility who actually has the disability, is in a leadership position at probably the most pervasive application on the planet and is willing to put themselves out there like that,” Schwerdtfeger says, “that’s a big deal.”

Article via Mashable, 5 April 2016

Photo: First Ever Braille Library in Paradise, Mauritius by Exchanges Photos

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About the author: Astrid Countee

Astrid Countee
Astrid is an Anthropologist, Data Analyst and Software Engineer who has always felt like a writer. She enjoys telling stories about science and technology and their effect on humanity. When she is not writing, she can be found reading and curled up with a cup of tea.

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