Q&A: Brad Henry of Transfigure8

Abernathy Miller, Columbus Alive

Columbus tech developer Brad Henry is using artificial intelligence to foster real societal change. By using technology originally designed to tutor school children, Henry and his team of programmers, artists, community leaders and transgender/gender-nonconforming individuals are developing an app that'll address tough questions about the trans community. Transfigure8 aims to educate users on transgender and gender-nonconforming topics by allowing people to ask a 3-D agent any number of "taboo" questions and get an honest response through scripting written by transgender people. Henry hopes Transfigure8 will become a resource for anyone with questions regarding the transgender community.

The Transfigure8 application stems from research on intelligent tutoring systems. Typically intelligent tutoring systems are used to train children on literacy and math skills. [Humans] are biological creatures, so I started talking hypothetically to other researches about a flirtatious intelligent tutor and non-traditional intelligent tutoring systems. Interestingly enough, one of the researchers said I was being sexist, even though I hadn't specified whether the "tutor" was male or female. The more we started exploring the topic, the more I realized how many complex issues came up.

I've always had a soft spot for underserved groups. As a gay male I knew what it was like growing up being bullied for feeling different. Where I grew up, you did not talk about your sexuality unless it was heterosexuality. The transgender issue is just now becoming more mainstream, but it's still considered a taboo topic. I have a good friend who is transgender and I asked if she had surgery. She replied, "Brad, unless you are sleeping with me, you don't need to know." I don't know how offended she was by me asking, but this technology allows for those kinds of opportunities without feeling like you're asking the wrong question. We want to keep it freeform so there is no right or wrong question. When you're dealing with certain types of exploration it's very difficult to find resources or a mentor. The app could be for parents, individuals seeking information, or a child who thinks they may be transgender. We want this technology to interact and engage with users to give them the opportunity to explore the topic comfortably.

When you're exploring answers, you don't want to hearthe obviousanswer; you want to hear the facts. I can only take my experiences so far, but I've never had to struggle with gender identity - luckily I am not writing the scripts for the application; they are being written by transgender community members. We aren't editing the scripts either because we want the application to be as realistic as possible. As the projects grow we'll be adding more agents, so the user will get multiple perspectives. In some cases, you don't want the textbook answer - you want to hear, "My life was hell, but I got over it."

Leelah Alcorn's suicide made me even more dedicated to the project. I was really upset to read the story about Leelah Alcorn (a transgender Ohio teen who died in December). I felt that if we had worked a little faster, maybe the app could have reached her or somebody in a similar situation. But it gave me that much more energy to dedicate to the project. I told my colleagues after it happened, "This is why we are doing this. This is why it's important." Everybody assumes when you're working on technology you're in it for the money - but that was never the intent. It's about helping individuals.

I was surprised at how supportive people wanted to be but weren't sure how to go about it. Many of the people I've worked with have been very considerate of the transgender community, but the political correctness gets to a point where it's hard to communicate. One artist wasn't sure if using his cartoon characters in the app would be offensive or not, for example.

Anytime you get individuals talking about somethingit's a good thing. There are going to be people who make fun of Transfigure8 and ask it stupid questions, but if the application teaches somebody something, my objective was achieved. I do a lot of presentations on technology and I pull Transfigure8 out at every presentation. Sometimes people giggle uncomfortably, but they always want to talk to me about it afterwards. I don't think anybody expected the technology to be used in this manner. We are taking technology developed to teach kids and using it for a socially conscious application. It's a big responsibility, but the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Somebody's got to do it - and I'm not afraid.

Photo by Meghan Ralston

Age: 46

Hometown: Dayton

Current neighborhood: German Village

Day job: Director of technology

Currently listening to: FKA Twigs

Website: transfigure8.org

Playing favorites:

Favorite movie: "Boyhood"

Favorite TV show: "House of Cards"

Favorite restaurant: Harvest Pizza. "Chris Crader is awesome!"

Favorite cocktail: Taylor Lane's Belle Gloss. "The stupid expensive one. However, I settle for the cheaper Meiomi."

Favorite app: Fitbit. "I amaddictedat the moment."

Best way to spend $10 in Columbus: "A trip to Jeni's followed by Luck Bros. Coffee or happy hour at Seventh Son Brewing."

What cult would you join: "I would start one that exposes injustices through Jon Stewart montages with a following of the little yellow Minions."