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Communications of the ACM


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.


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