Friday, October 5, 2007

Do You Think Computationally?

This morning I received an email regarding the National Science Foundation’s new program called "Cyber-Enabled Discovery and Innovation" (CDI). I skimmed the email with little interest until I read this:

CDI aims to create revolutionary science and engineering research outcomes made possible by innovations and advances in "computational thinking", defined as computational concepts, methods, models, algorithms, and tools.

This phrase, I’m guessing, is meant to refer to thinking about computational methods. A colleague of mine has ranted several times about the mis-use of the term “computational” and its morphological variants and it’s because of phrases like this that he rants. Even if we ignore the juicy ambiguity of the phrase above and take it as it’s intended, what exactly does “computational” mean?

Hal Daume wrote this:

The crux of the argument is that if something is not a task that anyone performs naturally, then it's not a task worth computationalizing.

I think he simply means “make a computer do it automatically” or something like that. And I take that to be the most sensible use of the word. But the word seems to get used to mean something else in a lot of cases. To make something computational is often like making something new & improved or extreme. It seems to be a marketing tool. People use it to make their work sound cutting edge and advanced. In other cases, it means using a computer to do what people used to do by hand.

I Googled the word “computational” and these were all on the first page of hits (CL was number 1, hehe):

Computational linguistics
Computational biology
Computational economics
Computational chemistry
Computational geometry

I don’t know if these disciplines have the same relationship to computational that linguistics does, but I can say this: I believe there is really no such thing as computational linguistics. As I have said in the Q & A section of my Companies That Hire Computational Linguists page:

my use of the term “computational linguistics” is a cover term for a loosely related set of skills including but not limited to NLP, NLU, MT, AI, info extraction, speech processing, (takes a breath…) VUI, text mining, document understanding, machine learning, ad nauseum…

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