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, for example an algorithm.

The study of computation is paramount to the discipline of computer science.

Physical phenomenon

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,

, or

.
This point of view has been adopted by the physics of computation, a branch of theoretical physics, as well as the field of natural computing.

An even more radical point of view is the postulate of digital physics that argues that the evolution of the universe is itself a computation - pancomputationalism.

Accounts of computation

The mapping account

The 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 be a necessary condition for computation (that is, 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, 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 requires that the property is able to be instantiated by multiple realizers and multiple mechanisms and that the inputs and outputs of the mechanism also be multiply realizable. In short, 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.

Mathematical models

In the theory of computation, a diversity of mathematical models of computers has been developed.
Typical mathematical models of computers are the following:

Giunti (1997

, 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, B

_{F}), which is made up of a theoretical part F, and a real part B

_{F}; third, an interpretation I

_{DS, H}, which links the dynamical system DS with the setup H.

See also