Can AI Write Your Alt Text?

Illustration of a person wearing a shirt with a brain reading a book on it

Not too many years ago, visual recognition software would’ve sounded like something out of a science fiction movie. Today, many tech companies have software like this available. These technologies use AI and machine learning to parse images and identify their subject matter.  One huge use case for this technology is alt text for images.  

What Is Alt Text?

On a website, alt text tells the browser what the subject matter of an image is.  Alt text is hugely important for web accessibility, as it ensure that users visiting a site on assistive technologies can understand the context and message behind an image.  Alt text also helps search engines understand and find images.  Without alt text, all a browser, assistive device or search engine sees is <image>. 

Accepting the Limitations and Looking at the Use Case

It is impressive that a computer can look at a picture and know that it contains man in a blue shirt.  But we’re not to a point yet where that computer can confidently say that that man is Guy Fieri.  And if you’re writing an article about must-try burger joints in Las Vegas, knowing that the featured image is a picture of a man in a blue shirt isn’t quite enough context to convey your actual message.  But it is much better than nothing and that’s where this technology can really make a difference. 

Smaller businesses might not have the resources to go back and add alt-text to hundreds of their old images.  But they probably do have the resources to drop in a few lines of code or install a plugin to their CMS.  And knowing that the image on screen contains a bird is better than just knowing there is an image on the screen.

And then there’s user generated content.  Think of how many images get uploaded to social media every minute of every day.  Even though these sites do often provide users with the option to caption, tag, or add alt-text; not all users are going to do so.   Adding alt-text to all of these images would be a near impossible task for a team of humans but for an AI tool, it’s nothing.   

AI generated alt-text will continue to improve.  It is a technology that has the potential to have a massive impact on accessibility and the way we interact with the web.  And for that reason, the experts working on it will continue to work on it.  And the solutions available will only get better. 

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