Who is Alice Recoque, engineer and forgotten pioneer of artificial intelligence?

 

In 2018, when Canadian Donna Strickland received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, there was no point in going to Wikipedia to learn more about her. And for good reason: there is no page dedicated to him at the time. Even worse, two attempts to create one failed after being rejected by the online encyclopedia community on the grounds that the researcher was not cited enough in the media and was therefore apparently not important enough.

Alice Recoque, who was born in 1929 in Algeria, France, and died in 2021, has a Wikipedia page since September 27, 2014. But she was almost killed for the same reasons as Donna Strickland. On October 18, 2015, a contributor was surprised: “This lady seems to have had a very honorable career, but I am not sure if she is a highly respected scientist or industrialist in the field of computer architecture.” A real publishing war ensues, which is described in detail at the book launch Who wanted to erase Alice Recoque? by Marion Carré, co-founder of conversational AI startup Ask Mona.

Alice Recoque, Engineer in Computer Architecture

This book is a biography of a key figure in French computing, all the more remarkable because Alice Recoque, an engineer who graduated in 1954 from the Ecole Supérieur Ecole des Physiques et Chemises de Paris (ESPCI), distinguished herself by design. and computer architecture, not software. His work contributes to the gradual reduction in the size of machines.

Within SEA (Society of Electronics and Automation) and then CII (International Society for Informatics), she developed industrial computers symbolizing the beginning of French computing, the CAB500 and the Mitra15. Nothing less than the first desktop computers. In 1978, she had enough influence in the sector to attend one of the meetings that led to the creation of the National Commission for Information Technology and Freedom (Cnil).

 

In the 1980s, she was the official strategist at the Bull Group in a promising but once-disappointing field: artificial intelligence. She is enthusiastic about so-called “learning” technologies, thinking about text generation tools, corrections and automatic translation, and also recommends avoiding fantasy to avoid possible disappointment. She actually understood everything about today’s debates.

Mechanisms of invisibility

But fame usually ran into two problems because of Alice Recoque. First, in the 60s and 70s of the last century, it distinguished itself in a field that was not yet very prestigious, in the field of computer technology, connected to the world of industry. Then Alice Recoque is a woman.

This is the common thread throughout Marion Carré’s book. In addition to the formal biography of the work, she analyzes the mechanisms that lead to the invisibility of women scientists, researchers, pioneers in their fields, at a time when it was commonly accepted that their place was at home, to make their husbands a career. Whether they studied or not (some of Alice Recoque’s classmates at ESPCI will remain housewives despite their diplomas).

But Alice Recoque did not follow this pattern. Or rather, she managed to have everything at the same time: a technical career after higher studies, top projects, relationships in high circles, but also a home, children, husband.

The problem of career and power

It is significant that Alice Recoque was able to launch a career in technology: men were not interested in her at that time. Until the IT sector increased in importance and became a matter of career, prestige and power. Equally significant is that every time a female engineer is given new responsibilities, she is always hierarchically subordinated to a male. In the national archives of the world of work, Marion Carré even found “visionary article” on the future of the workstation signed by a computer scientist CEO in a magazine, but echoes the ideas Alice Recoque shared with him in 1982.

This dimension of the book is very detailed and supported. Paradoxically, too much. Because the author sometimes drowns the biographical aspects and his fascinating portrayal of the French IT sector in general considerations and basic trends of the position of women in science and technology. It’s as if two books cancel each other out, a story on one side, an essay on the other. Even if the subject is the same. In the end, Alice Recoque’s journey is powerful and symbolic enough to speak for itself and show the strategies by which women continue to suffer. Even more so if Wikipedia contributors are mainly men.

 

 

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