Sign In

Communications of the ACM

Viewpoint

The Natural Science of Computing


Technology changes science. In 2016, the scientific community thrilled to news that the LIGO collaboration had detected gravitational waves for the first time. LIGO is the latest in a long line of revolutionary technologies in astronomy, from the ability to 'see' the universe from radio waves to gamma rays, or from detecting cosmic rays and neutrinos (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory—LIGO—is an NSF-supported collaborative effort by the U.S National Science Foundation and is operated by Caltech and MIT). Each time a new technology is deployed, it can open up a new window on the cosmos, and major new theoretical developments can follow rapidly. These, in turn, can inform future technologies. This interplay of technological and fundamental theoretical advance is replicated across all the natural sciences—which include, we argue, computer science. Some early computing models were developed as abstract models of existing physical computing systems. Most famously, for the Turing Machine these were human 'computers' performing calculations. Now, as novel computing devices—from quantum computers to DNA processors, and even vast networks of human 'social machines'—reach a critical stage of development, they reveal how computing technologies can drive the expansion of theoretical tools and models of computing. With all due respect to Dijkstra, we argue that computer science is as much about computers as astronomy is about telescopes.

Non-standard and unconventional computing technologies have come to prominence as Moore's Law, that previously relentless increase in computing power, runs out. While techniques such as multicore and parallel processing allow for some gains without further increase of transistor density, there is a growing consensus that the next big step will come from technologies outside the framework of silicon hardware and binary logic. Quantum computing is now being developed on an international scale, with active research and use from Google and NASA as well as numerous universities and national laboratories, and a proposed €1 billion quantum technologies flagship from the European Commission. Biological computing is also being developed, from data encoding and processing in DNA molecules, to neuro-silicon hybrid devices and bio-inspired neural networks, to harnessing the behavior of slime molds. The huge advance of the internet has enabled 'social machines'—Galaxy Zoo, protein FoldIt, Wikipedia, innumerable citizen science tools—all working by networking humans and computers, to perform computations not accessible on current silicon-based technology alone.


 

No entries found

Log in to Read the Full Article

Sign In

Sign in using your ACM Web Account username and password to access premium content if you are an ACM member, Communications subscriber or Digital Library subscriber.

Need Access?

Please select one of the options below for access to premium content and features.

Create a Web Account

If you are already an ACM member, Communications subscriber, or Digital Library subscriber, please set up a web account to access premium content on this site.

Join the ACM

Become a member to take full advantage of ACM's outstanding computing information resources, networking opportunities, and other benefits.
  

Subscribe to Communications of the ACM Magazine

Get full access to 50+ years of CACM content and receive the print version of the magazine monthly.

Purchase the Article

Non-members can purchase this article or a copy of the magazine in which it appears.
Sign In for Full Access
» Forgot Password? » Create an ACM Web Account
ACM Resources