What is a computer? Some more!

Thursday, August 18, 2016
by Cameron Shelley

A recent posting pointed to some lack of clarity about what a computer is.  Is a computer anything that carries out automated, logical or arithmetical operations?  Or, is it a particular kind of good, e.g., a PC and not an iPad?

Here are a couple more examples of this ambiguity.  The first occurs in a discussion of how hackers can use online ads to spread malware. One tactic is to present ads that dishonestly imitate login windows, so that users enter their names and passwords, which are delivered to the hackers.

One source of vulnerability along this line is that people are not used to such attacks appearing on their smartphones and can thus be caught unwary.  Why?  One expert says it is because smartphones are not computers to many people:

The trouble is, users not accustomed to smartphone malware may be at risk for infection until it sinks in that mobile devices are ultimately just as much a target for attackers as laptop and desktop computers, he warns.

"I unfortunately think it’s going to get worse," he said. "As users, we’re not thinking of these as computers, so we kind of trust it more than we should."

This view is in line with the idea that computers are a particular sort of good, in a category about which there may be significant confusion.

A second example comes from a study of ancient stone circles and similar monuments.  The study supports the conclusion that these monuments were built to perform some calendrical function.  In other words, Stonehenge was a big stone computer!

Across Western Europe are collections of standing stones dating back thousands of years that scientists have long suspected were huge astronomical computers, but that's largely been a matter of conjecture. Now a team of scientists from the University of Adelaide has statistically proven that some of the oldest standing stones in Britain were deliberately constructed to align with solar and lunar movements.

This view is in line with the broad, strictly functionalist idea of computers.

Certainly, Stonehenge is an artifact and one that may be used to track or predict annual events.  Does that make it a computer?

(I think Cortana would say "no".  Stonehenge has neither a keyboard nor USB ports.)

Courtesy Wikimedia commons.