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Ubiquity symposium 'What is computation?'
Editor's Introduction

Ubiquity, Volume 2010 Issue October, October 2010 | BY Peter J. Denning 


Full citation in the ACM Digital Library  | PDF

The first Ubiquity symposium seeks to discuss the question, "What is computation?"


Volume 2010, Number October (2010), Pages 1-2

'What is computation?': Editor's Introduction
Peter Denning
DOI: 10.1145/1865907.1870596

What is computation? This has always been the most fundamental question of our field. In the 1930s, as the field was starting, the answer was that computation was the action of people who operated calculator machines. By the late 1940s, the answer was that computation was steps carried out by automated computers to produce definite outputs. That definition did very well: it remained the standard for nearly fifty years. But it is now being challenged. People in many fields have accepted that computational thinking is a way of approaching science and engineering. The Internet is full of servers that provide nonstop computation endlessly. Researchers in biology and physics have claimed the discovery of natural computational processes that have nothing to do with computers. How must our definition evolve to answer the challenges of brains computing, algorithms never terminating by design, computation as a natural occurrence, and computation without computers?

All these definitions frame computation as the actions of an agent carrying out computational steps. New definitions will focus on new agents: their matches to real systems, their explanatory and predictive powers, and their ability to support new designs. There have been some real surprises about what can be a computational agent and more lie ahead.

To get some answers, we invited leading thinkers in computing to tell us what they see. This symposium is their forum. We will release one of their essays every week for the next fifteen weeks.

It is also your forum: You can add your thoughts below in the comments, or on the Ubiquity blog in the comments area.

Ubiquity Symposium: What is Computation?
Table of Contents

The following articles will appear on Ubiquity once a week, beginning in November 2010.

1. What is Computation? [opening statement], by Peter J. Denning

2. Evolution of Computation, by Peter Wegner

3. Computation is Symbol Manipulation, by John Conery

4. Computation is Process, by Dennis J. Frailey

5. Computing and Computation, by Paul Rosenbloom

6. Computation and Information, by Ruzena Bajcsy

7. Computation and Fundamental Physics, by Dave Bacon

8. The Enduring Legacy of the Turing Machine, by Lance Fortnow

9. Computation and Computational Thinking, by Al Aho

10. What is the Right Computational Abstraction for Continuous Scientific Problems?, by Joseph Traub

11. Computation, Uncertainty, and Risk, by Jeffrey P. Buzen

12. Natural Computation, by Erol Gelenbe

13. Biological Computation, by Melanie Mitchell

14. What is Information?, by Paolo Rocchi

15. Is the Symposium Question Harmful?, by Peter Freeman

16. Wrapping it Up [closing statement], by Peter J. Denning

About the Author

Peter J. Denning ( is Director of the Cebrowski Institute for innovation and information superiority at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and is a past president of ACM. He is currently the editor-in-chief of Ubiquity.

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Will be interesting to see how well these articles dance around Abstraction Physics. So far no conflict, up to #3. perhaps these in total will provide enough reference for I to write an ACM acceptable elaboration article submission on Abstraction Physics.

— Tim Rue, Thu, 25 Nov 2010 23:25:00 UTC

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