New faculty: Diane Uwacu

Diane Uwacu, new faculty at Mount Holyoke College, has turned her deep interest in problem solving into creating algorithms that help robots improve the quality of human life.

Growing up in Rwanda, Diane Uwacu had a love for mathematics and a passion for problem solving. Uwacu has turned that deep interest in problem solving into creating algorithms that help robots improve the quality of human life.

“The idea of artificial intelligence (AI) gets us to think about human intelligence,” she said. “By thinking about how you would design a robot to live and be useful in society, you also get to reflect a lot on how we respect and interact with each other and respect the roles that we play in each other’s lives.”

Uwacu was first introduced to computer science when she moved to the United States to attend Oklahoma Christian University and took her first introduction to programming course. It also sparked her enthusiasm for creating algorithms.

The recent advances in AI have caused excitement and also concerns about job security and equitable wages. Uwacu says that, like other technologies, AI presents a potential for good and bad, and it’s important that engineers and computer scientists think about the ethics around AI. This is why Uwacu is excited to start teaching at Mount Holyoke with a course on AI ethics that starts in October.

Uwacu seeks to make robots more useful to the human experience through motion planning algorithms, which is also her doctoral project at Texas A&M University.

Uwacu’s research mainly involves planning for intelligent systems. How intuitive can a robot be? Can a robot know its environment and where it wants to go? Motion planning algorithms can solve these questions by providing a pathway for a robot to achieve goals while improving computational time efficiencies and making their responses more precise.

An example would be placing a robot in a school to meet and greet people and provide guests with a school tour. Motion planning algorithms would help the robots adapt and better respond to obstacles in real time.

Uwacu’s research on motion planning algorithms is one of the reasons she was drawn to Mount Holyoke. Uwacu, who will receive her doctorate in December, decided to come to the College because of the opportunity to build a lab and work with Mount Holyoke students. She noted that the small class sizes provide the opportunity to build a rapport with students and allow her the thrill of watching students grow in understanding the material.

“Being there to witness when a student gets it and to see how they start thinking about it, applying it to their own lives and getting creative, is extremely exciting, I think,” she said. “When I see students moving from being curious to finally having that eureka moment, that’s what I live for as an instructor.”

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