Gualtiero Piccinini



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Computers1

© Gualtiero Piccinini

8/10/04
Abstract

According to some philosophers, there is no fact of the matter whether something is either a computer, or some other computing mechanism, or something that performs no computations at all. On the contrary, I argue that there is a fact of the matter whether something is a calculator or a computer: a computer is a calculator of large capacity, and a calculator is a mechanism whose function is to perform one out of several possible computations on inputs of nontrivial size at once. This paper is devoted to a detailed defense of these theses, including a specification of the relevant notion of “large capacity” and an explication of the notion of computer.

[I]t’s not helpful to say that the brain is a computer in the sense in which livers and hearts are (Searle 1992, p. 208).

In our everyday life, we distinguish between things that compute, such as pocket calculators, and things that don’t, such as bicycles. We also distinguish between different kinds of computing devices. Some devices, such as abaci, have parts that need to be manually moved, one by one. These may be called computing aids. Other devices contain internal mechanisms that, once started, operate on their data so as to produce a result without further external intervention. These may be called calculators. Among things that compute, we single out a special class and call them computers. At the very least, computers are special because they are more versatile than other computing mechanisms—or any other mechanisms, for that matter. Computers can do arithmetic but also graphics, word processing, Internet browsing, and myriad other things. No other artifacts come even close to having so many abilities. Computer versatility calls for an explanation, and one goal of this paper is to sketch such an explanation.

In contrast with the above intuitive picture, some philosophers have suggested that there is nothing distinctive about computers. Consider the following passage:

[T]here is no intrinsic property necessary and sufficient for all computers, just the interest-relative property that someone sees value in interpreting a system’s states as representing states of some other system, and the properties of the system support such an interpretation …. Conceivably, sieves and threshing machines could be construed as computers if anyone has reason to care about the specific function reflected in their input-output behavior (Churchland and Sejnowski 1992, p. 65-66).
If these authors are correct, then the double distinction between mechanisms that compute and mechanisms that don’t, and between computers and other computing mechanisms, are ill conceived. For according to them, there is no fact of the matter whether something is either a computer, or some other computing mechanism, or something that performs no computations at all. Whether anything is a computer, for these authors, is simply a function of the way we look at it.

In the absence of a viable account of what computers are, it is tempting to conclude that being a computer is an observer-relative matter, but anyone who accepts that conclusion has a lot to explain away. She should explain away our intuition that there is something distinctive about being a computer and our consequent practice of applying the term “computer” only to some mechanisms—such as our desktops and laptops—and not to others. She should explain why we think that the invention of computers was a major intellectual breakthrough and why there are special sciences—computer science and computer engineering—devoted to studying the specific properties of computers. Finally, she should explain why the mechanisms we ordinarily call computers, but not other computing mechanisms that pre-date them (let alone non-computing mechanisms), inspired the hypothesis that minds or brains are computers (von Neumann 1958, Fodor 1975).

Explaining all of this away, I submit, is hopeless. For I hold that there is a fact of the matter whether something is a calculator or a computer: a computer is a calculator of “large capacity,”2 and a calculator is a mechanism whose function is to perform one out of several possible computations on inputs of nontrivial size at once. The rest of this paper is devoted to a detailed defense of these theses, including a specification of the relevant notion of “large capacity,” and an explication of the notion of computer.

The topic of this paper is of interest for three reasons. First, computers are sufficiently important, both practically and conceptually, that understanding what they are is valuable in its own right. Second, a proper distinction between computers and other mechanisms, and between different classes of computers, is part of the foundations of computer science. There is no universally accepted notion of computer, and there have been numerous controversies over whether certain machines count as computers of one kind or another (with nontrivial legal consequences, cf. Burks 2002). Resolving those controversies requires clear and cogent criteria for what counts as a computer of any significant kind, and this paper makes a step towards providing such criteria. An example of how this illuminates a historical controversy will be given in section 3 below. Finally, as will be illustrated in sections 4 and 5, a robust notion of computer gives substance to theories according to which the brain is a computer.

The present analysis is conducted within the framework of what I call the functional account of computing mechanisms, which I have formulated and defended elsewhere (Piccinini 2003, forthcoming a). According to the functional account, a computing mechanism is a mechanism whose function is to perform computations. A computation, in turn, is the generation of output strings of symbols from input strings of symbols in accordance with a general rule that depends on the properties of the strings and applies to all strings. Finally, a string of symbols is a sequence of concatenated discrete elements, each of which affects the mechanism based on its type and its position within the string.3 Furthermore, the explanation of computing mechanisms’ capacity to perform computations is given by a functional analysis of the mechanism, i.e. an analysis in terms of the mechanisms’ components and the components’ functions.

It should go without saying that I assume that functional properties of mechanisms—those that enter the functional analysis of mechanisms—are not observer-relative in the relevant sense. This should be uncontroversial; even those who have argued that the notion of computer is observer-relative (e.g., Putnam 1988, Searle 1992, Churchland and Sejnowski 1992) appear to agree. The reason why they take the notion of computer to be observer-relative is that they do not believe it can be analyzed in functional terms. I hope my detailed account will convince them otherwise.

Within the framework of the functional account of computing mechanisms, I have offered a detailed account of the components that enter the functional analysis of computing mechanisms (Piccinini 2003). In analyzing computers, I will rely on the results of that account. I distinguish between three classes of strings on the basis of the function they fulfill: (1) data, whose function is to be the input of a computation; (2) results, whose function is to be the output of a computation; and (3) instructions, whose function is to cause appropriate computing mechanisms to perform specific operations. Lists of instructions are called programs. I also appeal to four kinds of large-scale components of computing mechanisms: (1) processing units, whose function is to execute any of a finite number of primitive operations on data; (2) memory units, whose function is to store data, intermediate results, final results, and possibly instructions; (3) input devices, whose function is to take strings of symbols from the environment and deliver them to memory units, and (4) output devices, whose function is to take strings of symbols from memory units and deliver them to the external environment. Some processing units can be further analyzed into datapaths, whose function is to perform operations on data, and control units, whose function is to set up datapaths to perform the operation specified by any given instruction.4




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