New Automated Captions Powered by AI

Messaging, voice and video calling have surged in recent months during the COVID-19 pandemic as people around the world check in with family, friends and colleagues. Audiences for newscasts and government briefings have also ballooned as the public seeks updates on the outbreak, travel guidance and personal hygiene advice to protect themselves from getting sick.

While there is no shortage of information, not everyone can access it. It needs to be available to the hundreds of millions of people in the world who are deaf or hard of hearing. According to the World Health Organization, over 5% of the world’s population – or 466 million people – have disabling hearing loss, and that is projected to increase to over 900 million by 2050. “Video captioning is critical for people like me in the deaf community during a public health emergency,” explains Brenden Gilbert, a production operations engineer at Facebook. While Facebook provides automatic closed captioning for on-demand videos in 16 languages, and just announced similar capabilities for Instagram IGTV, access to live, real-time news and information is still a need to be met. 

Facebook AI researchers and engineers jumped into action and have now made live video content more accessible by enabling automatic closed captions for Facebook Live and Workplace Live. Already, six languages are supported: English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German and French. Facebook Live automatic captions are helping governments disseminate crucial public health information, and ensuring that millions of viewers across the world – whether they have hearing loss, or are just watching where audio is not available – get the message. And, as workplace policies evolve, automatic captioning has become essential for employers to keep their staff and customers informed through safety updates.

The speed and scale of this AI-powered technology was only possible thanks to advances Facebook AI has made in automated speech recognition (ASR) over the past few years.

Laying Out the Challenge

Although automated caption technology, which predicts a sequence of words from a raw audio signal, has been around since the late 2000s, it is still an exceptionally difficult task. In the type of conversational speech that is present in live streams, people don’t always naturally speak clearly or wait their turn to speak. Unpredictable background noise, the large variety of accents and dialects, and the wide range of tones that influence human speech, make ASR even harder. 

The system also needs to learn to recognize hundreds of millions of different words across many languages, including uncommon names and jargon. An open domain task like this is very different from, and much more complex than, more constrained ASR tasks such as automated customer service calls where the system only needs to consider a relatively small set of possibilities. 

Conventional ASR systems are made up of three components: an acoustic model that predicts phonemes from short segments of audio, a pronunciation lexicon, which describes how the phonemes are combined to form the words of a given language, and a language model that captures the relationships among those words, e.g. which words are the most common and which words are likely to appear together.

A pivotal early discovery by the Facebook AI team was that the phonetic pronunciation lexicon could be eliminated, and acoustic models could be trained to directly predict the graphemes (or characters) of a word with better accuracy for end-to-end systems at first, and later also confirmed for hybrid systems. This greatly simplified training and deployment of these ASR models across different languages.

The rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic caused a spike in both the supply and demand of public health information. Several local and state governments, that were accustomed to holding live press conferences but didn’t have the resources, staff or technology to record, stream and caption their live events, turned to Facebook Live. Several governments also discovered that video captioning was not just a nice-to-have, but imperative, especially in the absence of available sign language interpreters. “Many of them needed captions to comply with their own disability access rules for public broadcasts,” explains Daniel McKinnon, a Product Manager at Facebook. 

People around the world were also tuning into newscasts and conferences streaming on Facebook Live, and watching for much longer periods of time than usual. In fact, the number of Facebook Live broadcasts from Pages doubled in June 2020 compared to the same time last year. That incredible amount of traffic puts enormous stress on any ASR system. 

To handle these elevated spikes in traffic, Facebook’s ASR models needed to get a lot faster in production to avoid falling behind. Recent research has shown that convolutional encoders trained with the CTC loss function could increase efficiency during inference for streaming use cases, while RNN Transducer models consistently yielded the best accuracy despite being the most compact. In non-streaming use cases, (i.e. when the entire video is available to the model for decoding) we have found that Transformer encoders can produce ASR models that are both very fast and the most accurate. 

Facebook engineers were able to deploy these model variations with a number of infrastructure optimizations, which enabled Facebook to serve all the additional video traffic and resulted in machine savings despite the increased load. Models were trained using PyTorch which enabled quick iterations on ideas and deployments to production.

“Improving speed without compromising on accuracy is the cherry on top,” says Yatharth Saraf, an Engineering Manager at Facebook.

Julian Chan, a Facebook AI software engineer explains that the system is also capable of adapting to new words such as “COVID,” which is essential for captioning public health information-based broadcasts during the pandemic. “It can easily learn a new word and predict where it will occur,” he explains. “This was largely made possible using text data from public Facebook posts to train the system.”  

The training data our system learned from included many different types of speech, but it’s far from perfect, especially when it comes to different accents. However, it can be difficult or even impossible to collect sufficient training data of every type, so researchers are exploring methods to improve and adapt models by having them also learn from vast amounts of unlabeled audio.

In the meantime, broadcasters can count on automatic closed captions to support their efforts to get the message out, whether a state official is sharing authoritative health guidance, or someone is simply taking their viewers behind the scenes of a day in their life — during COVID-19 and beyond.

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