Making computers understand

Published: 28/03/2010 05:00



Dr. Phan Thi Tuoi.

The Kovalevskaia for female scientists 2010 has been presented to three women, including Dr. Phan Thi Tuoi from the HCM City University of Technology.

Former HCMC university chief wins science prize

Female pharmacist, physicists awarded Kovalevskaia prize

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Sophia Kovalevskaia is the name of an outstanding female Russian mathematician in the 19th century. The Kovalevskaia Awards was initiated in 1985 to encourage natural science research activities among women in development countries. So far 80 female scientists in the world have received this prize, including Vietnam.

Dr. Tuoi has been known as a female leader of the country’s leading university, a former rector and now Party Secretary of the HCM City University of Technology. But people don’t know that Dr. Tuoi is one of several scientists who first began research in computer science in Vietnam and has opened a new direction of research: communicating with computers by human language. She talks with Tuoi Tre Cuoi Tuan.

Tuoi Tre Cuoi Tuan: “Communicating with computers by language” is your doctoral thesis and the major research direction in your life. How can it be understood in simple terms?

Phan Thi Tuoi: It means making computers to understand us through the Vietnamese language. When I made my doctoral thesis in Czechoslovakia (now being divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia), I set up a personnel management program for computers. I typed in the computer “how long has Ms. Ha been working here?” and the computer answered “Ms. Ha has been working here for three years.” It means that the computer understood my question. At that time, Czechoslovakia had a research field to help computers and people communicate. For 70 years, the US has developed this field into 30 branches.

Tuoi Tre Cuoi Tuan: So you are the first person who brought that science to Vietnam?

Tuoi: I can’t confirm that. When I returned to Vietnam in 1977, I was the only one who researched this issue in southern Vietnam. I was one of the first who taught it at university. I’ve researched and instructed many students to conduct research on automatic translation, building vocabulary, syntax, and processing the Vietnamese language by computer. A work named “Checking Vietnamese Spelling on Computer” can discover spelling errors made by typists, including errors in terms of meaning in sentences. Scientifically, this project teaches computers and let’s them automatically build up rules to discover spelling errors. This project has over 20,000 rules and a dictionary of over 30,000 words.

Tuoi Tre Cuoi Tuan: Why did you choose this science in the 1970-1980 when it was very new at home and abroad?

Tuoi:I was sent to Cvut in Czechoslovakia, a famous university in Europe. I chose computing science because compared to the two remaining branches (automation and precise sciences) belonging to the field that I was pursuing, computing science seemed to be more suitable to me. It was an impulsive act, but I really loved it.

Tuoi Tre Cuoi Tuan: You loved it so much so you didn’t stop studying when you were pregnant?

(Smile) I returned home after graduating the Cvut University and taught at the HCM City University of Technology. At that time my school had just set up the computer science faculty. I still remember that the school had several computers. Both lecturers and students had to register in advance to use computers both day and night. Documents were very scarce.

In 1982, I decided to register when I was pregnant my first child. Just one month after I gave birth, I passed the exam to win a scholarship. I returned to Czechoslovakia when my child was two years old. I left her in Vietnam with my mother. My husband was abroad at that time, too.

After a long path in my life, I’m about to retire, but I’m really happy with what I have from my family and my friends and colleagues.


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