How a supercomputer helped give a Nepali trans activist a voice of her own

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A new journalistic experiment is harnessing the power of artificial intelligence to help give a trans activist a voice of her own.

Key to the fight for transgender rights in the country, Nepali trans pioneer Bhumika Shrestha has helped push barriers in her country.

But with help from a project from China Daily Asia, she is finally getting her own voice.

Reporter Marc Lajoie put together the experimental project, which harnesses the power of IBM’s groundbreaking artificial intelligence Watson to allow people to have a conversation with a virtual Bhumika.

The project combines a plethora of tech, including Google voice recognition, IBM’s Watson, Facebook’s React architecture, and Amazon’s Lambda functions, to bring Bhumika to life.

Using voice recognition, users can ask Bhumika questions on a range of topics about being transgender or life in Nepal.

Lajoie explains: “It’s then interpreted by Watson and matched to different video segments. A video is then edited together in real-time and delivered, to answer your questions about her life, activism, and country.”

It took an intensive two-day interview session with Bhumika to build a database of answers for her virtual self, covering everything from the availability of gender reassignment surgery to whether she is in a relationship (she won’t tell).

The project is still in an experimental stage – asking about her hair leads to a discussion about her identity – but we were taken aback by the complexity of the questions the system could parse.

Lajoie recalled: “I had seen enough interviews with transgender people to know that they could go disastrously wrong.

“Even seasoned interviewers make the mistake of thinking that a transgender person’s gender identity gave them license to ask the most intrusive personal and anatomical questions.

“Because of the nature of the project, I had to ask these questions anyway. My role was to anticipate audience questions, and I had made a list of questions collected from colleagues and friends. Sure enough, people were curious about sex reassignment surgery, transitioning and other highly personal subjects.

“Every time I asked a sensitive question, I prefaced it by suggesting that if she found the question inappropriate, she could instead explain why a transgender person might be uncomfortable answering such a question.

“In that way, the project could double as an educational experience, teaching good manners when talking with transgender people. But to my surprise, Bhumika said she did not mind answering even the questions I had most dreaded asking.”

Nepal began issuing third-gender passports last year after a sustained push from campaigners.