‘Image May Contain: Cat’: Facebook/Instagram Outage Exposes How Its AI Sees Users’ Photos

© AP Photo / Marcio Jose SanchezA journalist makes a video of the Instagram logo at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California on 20 June 2013
A journalist makes a video of the Instagram logo at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California on 20 June 2013 - Sputnik International
Facebook and its subsidiary platforms Instagram and WhatsApp had problems viewing and loading content during an outage which left social media users disconnected for hours on Wednesday, 3 July.

Facebook’s recent server issues have allowed users to look at their photos the way the company’s artificial intelligence systems do.

As a result of massive outages and loading problems, Facebook’s desktop and mobile app stopped showing photos in people’s profiles.

Instead, for some people, other users' feeds appeared to be blank or displayed an 'Image may contain' message in the empty boxes that normally contain images and videos.

This line was followed by a description of what the AI thinks is in the image. A seaside photo, for instance, would now show a somewhat poetic text reading ‘Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, standing, outdoor, nature and water’.

This is an example of something the company calls automatic alternative text, an object recognition technology that Facebook has been developing since 2016.

The alt-text technology was put in place to help people with sight impairments, who can use a screen reader to hear what’s in the photo.

Users are able to edit the caption, which is normally only available to those using screen readers.

But Wednesday’s glitch raised suspicions among some people that Facebook might have been tagging their photos with keywords to help advertisers find their target audience.

One person said it all looked more like apocalyptic poetry…

...while another said the AI has discovered the “quintessence of meme”.

The servers’ partial breakdown appeared to have targeted users across the globe, while the outages have apparently concentrated in Europe and the US.

A spokesperson for Facebook, who was also speaking on behalf of Instagram and WhatsApp, said the connectivity issues arouse accidentally during a "routine maintenance" operation.

As of the time of writing, all of the platforms are back up and running, while the previously unavailable images are visible again.

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