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The Great Principles of Computing

Computing may be the fourth great domain of science along with the physical, life and social sciences

Peter J. Denning

Computing is integral to science—not just as a tool for analyzing data, but as an agent of thought and discovery.

Click to Enlarge ImageIt has not always been this way. Computing is a relatively young discipline. It started as an academic field of study in the 1930s with a cluster of remarkable papers by Kurt Gödel, Alonzo Church, Emil Post and Alan Turing. The papers laid the mathematical foundations that would answer the question “what is computation?” and discussed schemes for its implementation. These men saw the importance of automatic computation and sought its precise mathematical foundation. The various schemes they each proposed for implementing computation were quickly found to be equivalent, as a computation in any one could be realized in any other. It is all the more remarkable that their models all led to the same conclusion that certain functions of practical interest—such as whether a computational algorithm (a method of evaluating a function) will ever come to completion instead of being stuck in an infinite loop—cannot be answered computationally.

At the time that these papers were written, the terms “computation” and “computers” were already in common use, but with different connotations from today. Computation was taken to mean the mechanical steps followed to evaluate mathematical functions; computers were people who did computations. In recognition of the social changes they were ushering in, the designers of the first digital computer projects all named their systems with acronyms ending in “-AC”, meaning automatic computer—resulting in names such as ENIAC, UNIVAC and EDSAC.

At the start of World War II, the militaries of the United States and the United Kingdom became interested in applying computation to the calculation of ballistic and navigation tables and to the cracking of ciphers. They commissioned projects to design and build electronic digital computers. Only one of the projects was completed before the war was over. That was the top-secret project at Bletchley Park in England, which cracked the German Enigma cipher using methods designed by Alan Turing.

Many people involved in those projects went on to start computer companies in the early 1950s. Universities began offering programs of study in the new field in the late 1950s. The field and the industry have grown steadily into a modern behemoth whose Internet data centers are said to consume almost three percent of the world’s electricity.

During its youth, computing was an enigma to the established fields of science and engineering. At first, computing looked like only the applied technology of math, electrical engineering or science, depending on the observer. However, over the years, computing provided a seemingly unending stream of new insights, and it defied many early predictions by resisting absorption back into the fields of its roots. By 1980 computing had mastered algorithms, data structures, numerical methods, programming languages, operating systems, networks, databases, graphics, artificial intelligence and software engineering. Its great technological achievements—the chip, the personal computer and the Internet—brought it into many lives. These advances stimulated more new subfields, including network science, Web science, mobile computing, enterprise computing, cooperative work, cyberspace protection, user-interface design and information visualization. The resulting commercial applications have spawned new research challenges in social networks, endlessly evolving computation, music, video, digital photography, vision, massive multiplayer online games, user-generated content and much more.

The name of the field has changed several times to keep up with the flux. In the 1940s it was called automatic computation and in the 1950s, information processing. In the 1960s, as it moved into academia, it acquired the name computer science in the U.S. and informatics in Europe. By the 1980s computing comprised a complex of related fields, including computer science, informatics, computational science, computer engineering, software engineering, information systems and information technology. By 1990 the term computing had become the standard for referring to this core group of disciplines.

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