Philosophical Issues about Computation

Aug 23, 2018

Most of my work is connected through the domain of computation. For me, computation is at the same time subject, material, and tool. Ultimately, it is a source for a fascination that hasn't faded for many years. When I talk about computation as a subject I don't mean the basic building blocks like math, semi-conductors, or assembly language, but rather how computation relates to the world more broadly.

The Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science begins its article on “Philosophical Issues about Computation” as follows:

‘Computation’ is a cluster concept and has been characterized in many different ways (e.g. ‘the execution of algorithms’). It underwrites philosophical analyses of what can be done in principle by a mechanism, and is intrinsically connected to the idea of manipulating symbols or representations by formal rules. [...] The notion of computation is undoubtedly one of the very central, increasingly influential notions of our time.
M. Scheutz, Computation, Philosophical Issues about. (Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science, 2006)

I find this definition useful in multiple ways. Firstly, “what can be done in principle by a mechanism” suggests a creative space for designing; the wide disparity between what is possible in principle and in reality offers pathways into numerous topics and even existential questions.

Computer vision, for example, has been technically feasible for a while. Still, it remains challenging for a computer to keep a car on the road or distinguish dogs from bagels. I think it is fascinating how we choose to represent the world for computation and how computation builds representations of the world; how we see computers and how computers make sense of us. These themes, it turns out, are as much about us humans as they are about computers. And I believe that all the friction and problems, lucky accidents, the good and bad glitches, help us to see differently. We can use technology to reflect about ourselves.

Secondly, to come back to the definition quoted earlier, computation being “one of the very central, increasingly influential notions of our time” illustrates the greater relevance of engaging with computation in my practice. Many emerging technologies are made possible by computation and come with potential applications and implications for their users and non-users, societies and the planet in general. My goal is to add my voice to the countless others studying them, hopefully contributing to more thoughtful use of computation.