Computation is any type of calculation
[ Computation from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary] that includes both arithmetical and non-arithmetical steps and follows a well-defined model understood and described as, for example, an algorithm.
The study of computation is paramount to the discipline of computer science.
A computation can be seen as a purely physical phenomenon occurring inside a closed physical system
called a computer
Examples of such physical systems include
, mechanical computers,
, molecular computers, microfluidics-based computers,
This point of view is the one adopted by the branch of theoretical physics called the physics of computation as well as the field of natural computing.
An even more radical point of view is the postulate of digital physics that the evolution of the universe itself is a computation - pancomputationalism.
Accounts of computation
The mapping account
A classic account of computation is found throughout the works of Hilary Putnam
and others. Peter Godfrey-Smith has dubbed this the “simple mapping account.”
Gualtiero Piccinini's summary of this account states that a physical system can be said to perform a specific computation when there is a mapping between the state of that system to the computation such that the “microphysical states of mirror the state transitions between the computational states.”
The semantic account
Philosophers such as Jerry Fodor
have suggested various accounts of computation with the restriction that semantics
content is a necessary condition for computation (that is, that what differentiates an arbitrary physical system from a computing system is that the operands of the computation represent something). This notion attempts to prevent the logical abstraction of the mapping account of pancomputationalism, or the idea that everything can be said to be computing everything.
The mechanistic account
Gualtiero Piccinini proposes an account of computation based in mechanical philosophy. It states that physical computing systems are types of mechanisms that, by design, perform physical computation, or “the manipulation (by a functional mechanism) of a medium-independent vehicle according to a rule.” Medium-independence allows for the use of physical variables with traits other than voltage (as in typical digital computers); this is imperative in considering other types of computation, such as that occurs in the brain
or in a quantum computer
. A rule, in this sense, provides a mapping among inputs, outputs, and internal states of the physical computing system.
In the theory of computation, a diversity of mathematical models of computers has been developed.
Typical mathematical models of computers are the following:
, ch. 1) calls the models studied by computation theory computational systems
and he argues that all of them are mathematical
with discrete time and discrete state space. Giunti (2017
, pp. 179-80) maintains that a computational system is a complex object which consists of three parts. First, a mathematical dynamical systems DS with discrete time and discrete state space; second, a computational setup H = (F, BF
), which is made up of a theoretical part F, and a real part BF
; third, an interpretation IDS, H
, which links the dynamical system DS with the setup H.