Rose Dieng-Kuntz: knowledge webs and artificial intelligence

By Jaime Seltzer

Rose Dieng-Kuntz was born in Dakar, Senegal, where she lived with her parents and her six siblings. Her father, Henri Deng, who was a strong proponent of education and hard work, dropped Rose and her siblings off at the front gates of her school early every day. And every day, little Rose was practically bouncing with excitement. It was a quality she would carry well into adulthood, greeting new knowledge with barely-suppressed excitement.

Rose wanted to be a writer at first, but she soon discovered her passion for mathematics communication, and systems of classification. At her high school, she earned the highest scores in math, French, and Latin, and took second place in Greek. This was back in the day when taking the highest score meant a competition, so Rose was the equivalent of the Jeopardy champion of her entire high school. Her friends also joked that she would have won in soccer as well, because she was so invested in giving everything her full energy.

She was the author and co-author of over 140 pieces of scientific literature, including eleven books.

In 1972, Rose earned her bachelor’s degree in science and then, at age twenty, she was offered a scholarship to the Grande École Polytechnique in Paris, where she became the first black African woman to enroll. Her doctoral thesis was on parallel computing, which states that problems are made up of many steps that can be carried out simultaneously by a computer, and combined at the end to produce the answer more swiftly. She briefly worked for a private company before joining the Institut National de Recherche en Informatique et d’Innovation, where she studied computer science and artificial intelligence.

Rose wanted to return home to Senegal, but at that point, computer research there was non-existent. An old classmate of Rose’s was working at the INRIA Sophia Antipolis, and convinced her to work there on expert systems.

Expert systems were computer programs that could take the knowledge of, say, a doctor, and program that knowledge into a machine that could then suggest certain decisions depending on what the user entered. For example, a physician could input symptoms and the computer could suggest diagnoses or next courses of action. It was Rose’s job to be sure that the computer could describe its reasoning to the person using the expert system rather than just have the physician take the computer’s word for it. Rose, who had always been interested in interconnectedness, focused on the computer having access to not just factual information but complex, qualitative (non-measurable) data in order to come to its conclusion.

Rose Dieng-Kuntz

Rose Dieng-Kuntz in the Women in Science card game.

People who study artificial intelligence study knowledge webs – the manner in which one piece of information or knowledge is connected to many others – and Rose was a pioneer in the field, writing important books and articles on knowledge webs and systems of classification in computer science. A surprising amount of research on artificial intelligence is actually about understanding how languages are built, and how one piece of information is related to another. You might be surprised to see how many of Dieng-Kuntz’s papers are fundamentally about the nature of communication: what it means to ‘know’, how human beings classify and categorize new information, and how that information is shared.

Starting in 1992, Rose was the director of the Acacia project, which allowed someone who wanted to create an expert system to do so more effectively by comparing the decision-making processes of multiple experts side-by-side in the form of ‘decision trees’. Then, the computer programmer would search the human logic for errors in reasoning, and differentiate those from specialized knowledge only one expert might have. The result was a program that could, for example, examine traffic accidents involving a bicyclist and a truck, and examine the decisions made and the outcomes produced. As you might imagine, this was an insanely complicated project that took years to complete.

Rose’s work helped to build – perhaps you can guess – the framework for Worldwide Web. Her papers on the manner in which information could be connected and related, and her vision of scientists working together to solve common problems are some of her legacies.

In 2005, Rose Dieng-Kuntz was awarded the Irène Joilot-Curie award for distinguished women scientists, which came with a 10,000 Euro prize. She was the author and co-author of over 140 pieces of scientific literature, including eleven books.

When Rose passed away in 2009 due to cancer, she was only in her fifties. The community was struck by the loss of this woman who had mentored so many and had such a profound impact on the landscape of computer science.

Akyeampong, E. & Gates A. L. (2012). Rose Dieng-Kuntz. In Dictionary of African Biography (Vol. 2, pp. 199-200). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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