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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Cisco’s City-in-a-Box for the Asian expansion

Paul Raven @ 10-06-2010

Most urban environments have accreted gradually over decades and centuries, but the changing economies of the Far East demand modern city infrastructure for millions of people where none existed before, and fast. Enter Cisco Systems, the network hardware people, and their new ‘product’: an off-the-shelf city suitable for a million fully-wired inhabitants [via @BLDGBLOG].

Delegations of Chinese government officials looking to purchase their own cities of the future are descending on New Songdo City, a soon-to-be-completed metropolis about the size of downtown Boston that serves as a showroom model for what is expected to be the first of many assembly-line cities. In addition to state-of-the-art information technology, Songdo will emit just one-third of the greenhouse gases of a typical city of similar size.

[…]

It’s easy to see why Cisco is intoxicated with the possibilities: According to a study by investment bank CIBC World Markets, governments are expected to spend $35 trillion in public works projects during the next 20 years. In Songdo alone, Cisco sold 20,000 units of its advanced video conferencing system called Telepresence – a billion-dollar order – almost before the ink had dried on the contract, said developer Stan Gale, the chief visionary of the project.

“Everything will be connected – buildings, cars, energy – everything,” said Wim Elfrink, Cisco’s Bangalore-based chief globalization officer. “This is the tipping point. When we start building cities with technology in the infrastructure, it’s beyond my imagination what that will enable.”

Environmental efficiency and digital infrastructure can only be good things to include in a from-scratch city, but one can’t help but wonder if these places will suffer from the same coldness and lack of character that Brutalist urban planning scattered across Europe in the post-war years. The designed environment is an old, old concept in architecture, but it’s one that has never really delivered on its utopian promises.

But given the migrant magnetism of urban areas in Asia (and the Global South, as well, where Cisco’s cities may well find another place to call home), we can expect a rapid accretion of undesigned and emergent occupation and use to crop up in the interstices, in the spaces in between. How long will that take? How successfully will the designed city (and its ecosystem of law enforcement and local government) resist (or embrace) such end-user hacking? Lots of fresh data for psychogeographers coming down the pipeline…


FORGOTTEN DRAGONS by David McGillveray

Jeremy Lyon @ 10-10-2006

David McGillveray – whose story “His Whore The Vector” appeared on Futurismic last year – is back with an action-packed tale of the secretive front lines of Sino-American rivalry.

Forgotten Dragons

by David McGillveray

Chongqing Municipality, People’s Republic of China, Spring 2026

The night air was wet with mist, the ground cold beneath their bellies.

“What the hell are we doing out here, man?” grumbled Cope. He spoke Mandarin out of custom, even though they were alone. “I thought the plan was to hit the fuel convoy and get out fast like last time.”

Janssen shook his head and returned the night-vision binos to his eyes. “Won’t work.” Continue reading “FORGOTTEN DRAGONS by David McGillveray”