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June 13, 2005

What's in a name? Computer "science" vs. "engineering"

Illigal Blogging has a nice post criticizing the initial choice to use the word "science" (as in "computer science") to describe what computer people do. (I'll use the term "computer people" in this post to avoid any bias toward "science" or "engineering.") I agree with the author's assertion that the use of "science" instead of "engineering" is unfortunate because it fails to capture the significant ways in which computer scientists/engineers use computers to develop new solutions to real-world problems.

There has been similar debate about the use of the term "machinery" in the name of the computer profession's preeminent association: The Association for Computing Machinery. R.W. Hamming, in his acceptance speech for the 1968 Turing Award (ACM Digital Library subscription required), said:

At the heart of computer science lies a technological device, the computing machine. Without the machine almost all of what we do would become idle speculation, hardly different from that of the notorious Scholastics of the Middle Ages. The founders of the ACM clearly recognized that most of what we did, or were going to do, rested on this technological device, and they deliberately included the word “machinery” in the title [of the ACM]. There are those who would like to eliminate the word, in a sense to symbolically free the field from reality, but so far these efforts have failed. I do not regret the initial choice. I still believe that it is important for us to recognize that the computer, the information processing machine, is the foundation of our field.

The focus on the "scientific" and theoretical aspects of what computer people do has affected how the law has viewed computer software. For example, an argument that continues to be raised against the patenting of software to this day (and particularly strongly in Europe at the moment) is that software is "abstract" or "intangible" and therefore lacking in the "practical" or "technical" nature required for patent protection. I think that this dispute about whether software is "abstract" (and hence not patentable) or "technical" (and hence susceptible of patent protection) has some of the same roots as the debate about whether computer people are doing science, mathematics, engineering, some combination of them, or something completely different.

Although what many computer people do what is reasonably classified as "science," many are using computers to design new solutions to practical problems -- in other words, to engage in engineering. The debate over legal protection for software needs to incorporate a more nuanced understanding of what computer people do if there is to be any hope of a rational resolution to that debate.

Posted by Robert at June 13, 2005 3:28 PM
category: Design & Engineering | Software Patents | Work


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