TED Conversations

Amir Michail

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Has computer science completely missed the point of a computer -- namely, that it is a creative tool?

One could argue that computer science is like a "pen science" where scientists find ways to write as quickly as possible with a pen and to fill up a page with as much text as possible.

That would of course completely miss the point of a pen.

One could say something similar about computer science with its focus on time and space efficiency of computations.

The computer—like a pen—is a creative tool and the focus should be on the invention of new kinds of software applications—not on making existing ones more efficient.

Universities should have a creative field of study—distinct from computer science—for novel uses of computers.

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    Feb 17 2011: I am in some agreement with you on your last sentence, since I think that would be an interesting and beneficial field of study. But, I'm not sure I agree with your description of computer science as missing the point of a computer.

    You have defined a computer as a creative tool, and its true that there is a lot of benefit for artists and other creative individuals to using a computer. It can also be a communication tool. It can be a computational tool for scientists, engineers, or mathematicians. Or a tool for tracking and managing processes, organizations, money, etc. It can be a tool for controlling machinery. Or a tool for engineers to design systems and components. Or it can just be used to store very large amounts of information.

    But in almost all of these cases, there is almost nothing that a computer does that wouldn't be theoretically possible without it. Now, with the computing power and software of today's computers, at first, this statement sounds completely absurd. But, the basic benefit that the computer is providing is that it does all of these things faster than the alternative. So much faster, in fact, that the alternative may be so impractical that it is actually impossible.

    So, when you say that computer science is missing the point of a computer when it focuses on efficiency of computations, I disagree completely. Efficiency is the main point of a computer. So if you want to spend some time being creative about all of the things you can do with a computer, great. But, when it comes time to make it happen, making it happen quickly and efficiently is the very reason you are using a computer to do it.
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    Feb 17 2011: I personally study Computer Science, and I think is a very good, interesting and reasonable question.
    I also agree that most people might think of computer science as some kind of "pen science". But, the way i see computer science is more than just science.
    I think that there mainly 2 categories of computer scientists. One is those who see computer science as all about creating systems of code, improving existing systems, and advancing the field, and making it more efficient. And the other group is those who see computer science as something special, something more that a science, which can be used to create a masterpiece of logic in a unique and creative way, a masterpiece which mean more than a piece of code. And I think novelty of this field comes when you think of it as being both science and art.
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    Jun 6 2011: How much gig of data does our eyes take in at any given time?
  • Jun 4 2011: Hi All,

    My first comment is that "computer science" is a misnomer, since making computers and software is creating functional things, rather than analyzing the natural world, so a more accurate term is "computer engineering."

    My second comment is that personal computers in the 1980's were a tool to help us expand our creativity, at least the Macintosh. It was an incredible breakthrough to be able to do word processing and draw pictures and diagrams, then save and print them as though done by a professional printer. Then over the past 20 years, personal computers became primarily a tool for communicating, as everyone adopted email and the World Wide Web grew. More recently, somewhat to my chagrin, computers have become primarily an appliance for watching television. All the laptop computers now for sale have a wide screen that is not very tall, ideal for video but not ideal for creating a document that fits on a page. Yes, there is some humor to this comment as well as some truth. I suppose the main point is that the mass market has driven the design of computers, not the small fraction of people who think of computers as a creative tool. But purely for being creative, computers now can do a lot more than they could in 1987 (true or false?).

    My third comment, regarding computer speed and the quantities of data handled, is that perhaps some thinking from the past is still with us but has become outdated. Circa 1970, there was a dream that all the world's problems would be solved if we only had faster computers. The dream never came true, but there is still a school of thought that faster, more complicated calculations will always yield a better answer. Meanwhile, the value of pen, paper, and a little brainpower has become underappreciated.
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    May 17 2011: Hello Amir, and everyone else!

    Amir; what you speak of is descriptive of an area of Computer Science often called Human Computer Interaction (HCI), which is loosely a Human Factors field where the art of combining human and machine into something more than either is developed.

    Whereas strict Computer Scientists (I like to call them "Big Iron") work inside the machine, HCI folks work extends beyond the scope of machine to incude the human.

    If you have heard of Alan Turing, the father of modern computing, you may also be familiar with his design for an unconventional computer (with computational powers beyond the Turing Machine) called an "Oracle Machine". The Oracle Machine was a Turing Machine and a Black Box working together. In this symbiosis the Turing Machine asks the Black Box questions it can't answer alone and thus is more powerful than an unaugmented Touring Machne.

    In many ways the combination of computers and humans embodies this powerful tool described by Turing. HCI recognizes this and works towards both efficiency and humanistic gains. So, this is a hard example of an area of Computer Science that has both artistic and scientific acumen.

    If you look at work that comes out of many labs with a strong HCI history (eg. Zeros PARC, MIT Media Lab, Human Media Lab, etc.) you will see many interesting and odd uses of computers that are novel, disruptive and sometimes even world-changing!
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    Feb 17 2011: I am studying Computer Science and my algorithms professor, today actually, talked about how many technical papers come out of Pixar about new ways to improve rendering of images and simulation of physics by improving algorithms. There is also something to be said about the creativity of programming, and how a computer scientist would consider it a creative act to write an elegant algorithm to do some task better. I totally agree that there should be more instruction in creative programming but there is a degree of knowledge that is required to make a program do something innovative and do it well.