What is a Computer?

Allyson Larcom: You are literally looking at a computer right now. Today we might think of a computer as the laptop in our tote bag or even the smartphone in our pocket. But computers manifest in many other forms. A computer is any device that accepts, stores, and manipulates information for a program- or a software-defined result. Once room sized machines that operated on vacuum tubes and magnetic drums, computers now fit in the palm of the hand, and are found in everything from household appliances to cars to pacemakers. Applications and software make computers the tools of choice for things like word processing, databases, spreadsheets, presentations, simulations, education, customer management, gaming, and engineering. And while we think of a computer as having apps and programs stored and started by a user, computers also have programs built directly into their hardware, like the CPU that powers the machine. Today’s computers combine both kinds of programming. Computers range in size and scope from a compute stick no bigger than your thumb to a mainframe or a centralized fixed computer used for large scale computing. Tomorrow’s computers might even be based on quantum physics to perform calculations in seconds that would ordinarily take today’s fastest computers tens of thousands of years.