Atheism, proselytism and other isms

Aliette de Bodard @ 09-09-2010

There’s an interesting article by Alom Shaha over on the Guardian’s blog, on why he’s no longer an “angry atheist”. The gist of it is basically that the “preaching” atheists (those who claim loudly that to believe in God is the act of morons) can be as annoying as religious fanatics.
It’s an interesting comparison, and one which reminds me of a conversation I had a while ago over on Gareth’s blog with Cecile Cristofari. Cecile pointed out an article by Tatiana Chernyshova, which explained that

Only a fraction [of people], however, is actually able to explain what e=mc² stand for; and even fewer can understand the theory and explain precisely why it makes sense. The rest of us simply accept scientific facts in the same way as uneducated people in the 19th century accepted the idea that God existed: because competent authorities have said so, but this knowledge still relies on faith, not proof, in spite of the fact that science is supposed to be about proof, not faith.

To me, there’s a fair amount of similarities between atheism, science and religion: they’re all beliefs. Religious faith is the most obvious one; but faith in science (the idea that science can explain and/or control everything) is also one. So is atheism. Some of those beliefs seem more substantiated than others: science seems to work so far at explaining the world around us, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s perfect or even that it’s a good explanation. After all, the medieval Christian mythos also worked pretty well to explain the world ten centuries ago–until it became clear that particular worldview wasn’t equal to the task. At some point, all of those require a leap of faith: that science is an accurate representation of reality, that there is a God and that he spoke through the mouth of prophets or of the Messiah, that there is not and will never be a God.

But as beliefs? They’re not equal. Being a loud atheist is OK; being a loud religious person is… well, generally an embarrassment in most First World nations. Believing in science is reasonable and sensible (in spite of the fact that most people have no idea at all how most of it works or what assumptions it rests on, as Chernyshova points out); believing in God is much less so. As a scientist and a believer, I find it fascinating how some beliefs can end up more valued and/or socially acceptable than others, sometimes to the point of being accepted as gospel truths.

(also, I’m very much fascinated by the idea that faith in science has replaced faith in God, which is worryingly plausible, and possibly explains why I always end up in such acrimonious arguments about the fallibility of science)

PS: I welcome notes and comments on the subject, but could you please try to keep to basic rules of politeness. I have seen the Guardian’s comment thread, and I’m not over-enthusiastic to replicate it here…

Aliette de Bodard is a Computer Engineer who lives and works in France. When not wrestling with Artificial Intelligence problems (aka teaching computers how to analyse what they see), she writes speculative fiction. She is the author of the Aztec fantasy Servant of the Underworld from Angry Robot, and has had short fiction published in Asimov’s, Interzone and the Year’s Best Science Fiction.


AIs in the kitchen

Aliette de Bodard @ 07-09-2010

Part of my wedding kit was this strange machine:

P1000170

If you live in Europe, chances are, you won’t have seen this before. However, if you’ve been in Asia (most particularly in Japan), you’ll recognise this as a rice cooker. Inside, there’s a pot: fill with rice and water, push the “cook” button, et voilà! It’ll beep when it’s done, and you won’t need to worry about the rice burning at the bottom of the pot, the water bubbling over the rim, or any other of the usual nightmare scenarios of making Asian-style rice. [1]

This particular one comes with all the bells and whistles: the pot is non-stick (which comes in handy to wash off the rice), it has several modes including porridge (congee/zhou), soup, and several different types of rice (white, sushi, glutinous, and brown). And it has a timer.

And (this is the part that appeals to my inner geek), it has artificial intelligence.

Specifically, what the makers call Fuzzy Logics , which allow it to handle more complicated scenarios than the one where the user has put in the correct amount of rice and the correct amount of water. As this article has it, the cooker is starting to think like a real cook, adapting its behaviour to what’s happening inside the machine. Typically, if the rice gets dry too fast, it’ll adjust the temperature downwards; if there’s too much water, it’ll boil it away, etc.

I had no idea those things could get so complicated [2]. But when you think about it, it does make sense–adjust for the fact that rice is the staple food of Asia, and of course Asian households are going to have complex rice cookers, just as we have fairly complex coffee-makers.

Take the timer function: when your morning meal is steamed rice or congee (as it is in China or in Japan), which takes at least 30 minutes to cook up (in the most optimistic of setups), then sure, the timer function means a little extra time in bed, or in the shower, or elsewhere.
The different types of rice? This is the traditional method for cooking glutinous rice in South-East Asia, which requires a special bamboo steamer–and the least that can be said is that it takes up quite a bit of space (to say nothing of practical requirements. It’s a bit of a challenge to get the cooking time right with this contraption).

There’s a fascinating article here, which charts the development of rice cookers, and their use in households. (I did wonder why the Japanese were such big players in terms of rice cookers, and it turns out that they use a very particular variety of rice that is fairly glutinous–making for a particularly difficult stovetop cooking. Jasmine rice, the staple food in the Indochinese peninsula, is fairly easy to cook on a stove, if you pay enough attention. Apparently, Japanese rice is a little bit more of a challenge).

So there you go. We might not have Hal yet, but we certainly have sophisticated robots, and some of them are in our kitchens. And cook awesome rice. Though, when all’s said and done, I’m holding out for the Fuzzy Logics coffee-maker…


[1]If you’re cooking your rice European-style, by flinging a few handfuls of it into a large pot of boiling water, then you won’t know what I’m talking about. Asian rice is cooked by absorption of the water into the rice–it’s fluffy and tasty, quite unlike the odorless white goo that comes out of a European pot.
[2] My only experience of Asian rice cookers was in Vietnam, where the ones I saw tended to look more like this, somewhat less modern (not surprising: Vietnam is developing pretty fast, but it’s not yet a First World nation, and the people I saw weren’t madly wealthy either).

Aliette de Bodard is a Computer Engineer who lives and works in France. When not wrestling with Artificial Intelligence problems (aka teaching computers how to analyse what they see), she writes speculative fiction. She is the author of the Aztec fantasy Servant of the Underworld from Angry Robot, and has had short fiction published in Asimov’s, Interzone and the Year’s Best Science Fiction.

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