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Computer thinking required

By Jean-Claude Elias - May 08,2014 - Last updated at May 08,2014

Is it a computer or just a computerised device? Is it merely a rhetorical question or does it really matter now that most digital electronics work and act like computers?

I have fond memories of my college years, and particularly one of our thermodynamics professors. He was a bright person and came from Armenian ancestry. We loved him but his somewhat old-fashioned manners often made us smile, albeit gently. Those were the days of the early portable scientific calculators like the legendary Texas Instruments TI-30 circa 1977, for those who remember the model. This dear professor used to tell us “take your computers and perform this calculation…”  By computer he meant calculator!

For many years the French actually called “calculateur” any computer. Besides, in English “to compute” can be used as a synonym for “to calculate”. One of most widely accepted definitions of computer is a device that has a processor, memory, a storage area and a minimum of a few input/output units. Today, countless devices that are not called computers comply with the definition.

Desktop computers, laptops, tablets and of course smartphones are obviously computers in their own right. Though less obvious, the case of digital cameras is interesting to analyse. These devices have a processor, memory, a permanent storage area and several input-output units. High-end models do much more, with some of them being fit with WiFi to let you immediately send your photo over the web. Moreover, the graphic processing capability of a professional DSLR camera easily compares to a powerful digital processor, not any.

Some cameras by Canon or Nikon can process, simultaneously, a huge RAW image and a compressed jpg image of the same shot taken, generating, storing and displaying a total of 40 megabytes of high definitions images in a fraction of a second, faster than what many laptops can do. It is therefore no wonder that these beauties cost a few thousand dollars. Even by taking into consideration the importance of the optical part of these devices (the lenses), the digital electronic part today takes precedence. But they still call them cameras.

From cars to elevators and household appliances, not forgetting musical instruments, there is hardly a manufactured machine or device that does not feature a full-fledged computer in it, even if it’s deeply buried in its entrails. Surely the industry cannot call them all computers and needs to be more specific.

The name does not matter much as long as we, users, realise how much “computer” has been designed and put in the device we are using, just to be able to better deal with it and then to make the best out of it.

Take Roland’s latest generation of digital pianos, the V-Piano Grand. It is a piano, of course, but the computer part in it, or parts I should say, is overwhelming. From the primal generation of the sound it delivers to all parameters that control everything from the keyboard touch response to the tone, the computer does everything. And it does it very well. Players can even programme the machine to respond to the style they play in many different ways. And yes, you can connect it to the Internet for regular software version update and maintenance! The V-Piano does it all and it does it rather well. With its $20,000 price tag it had better. Buying a V-Piano thinking it is only a musical instrument would be too bad.

Perhaps the main consequence of all these computers placed inside consumer equipment is the fact that no one today can refuse to deal with computers, and with networks for that matter. However friendly and easy the man-machine interface may be, computer thinking and logic have become a must; there’s simply no escape.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s the older generation would say “I am not and do not want to be tech-minded, I just want to use the device.” This doesn’t work anymore for there’s a minimum technical knowledge to acquire whatever the equipment, even if it’s an apparently dummy microwave oven or wristwatch. Up to a good extent, we all need to be in harmony with computer technology and in tune with computer thinking.

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