Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The Natural Science of Computing

Our Viewpoint article “The Natural Science of Computing” has just been published in the Communications of the ACM.  This is a shorter, less technical, updated, and more opinionated version of our 2014 paper “When Does a Physical System Compute?”

The statement
Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes
is often attributed to Dijsktra.  The published version serves our purposes even better:
Computer science is not about machines, in the same way that astronomy is not about telescopes. There is an essential unity of mathematics and computer science.
In our paper, we take the opposite approach, and argue that
computer science is as much about computers as astronomy is about telescopes
In astronomy, every time a new kind of telescope is pointed at the heavens, new discoveries have been made, leading to new theoretical developments.  Astronomy is all about telescopes. And unconventional computing, located in “weird” substrates, is showing how it might be that computer science is all about (physical) computers.  We might even claim that there is an essential unity of physics and computer science.  We conclude:
Just like astronomy, computer science could describe physical systems in abstract language with predictive power, and thereby drive forward the dual interplay of technology and theoretical advancement.  New computers could inform new computational theories, and those theories could then help us understand the physical world around us.  Such a computer science would indeed be a natural science.

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