Could a computer ever do science?

I feel I need to lay some groundwork to explain what I mean by a literacy of the present, so the next few posts are likely to be about science, making sense, and “literacy”.

Could a computer ever do science?

At first glance the answer might seem simple and might be along the lines of “maybe not at the moment, but one day with the advance of computer technology anything could be possible, including a computer being able to do science.” However, we may prefer a different answer if we see the question not as one about the ability of computers but as one about the nature of science. Is there something about science which in principle makes it something a computer will never be able to do?

The distinction is often made between science as process and science as product, between science as objective, rational methodology and science as a body of knowledge. On the face of it we might be able to think of a computer being able to do both and, indeed, do it much more efficiently than a human scientist. We can, for instance, easily imagine a computer equipped with suitable robotic peripherals being able to make measurements and observations, record data, perform calculations, draw graphs and so on. We could even imagine a computer carrying out experiments, mixing chemicals and growing cells in culture or even designing experiments to obtain better measurements, data and calculations.

In short, the computer would be able to generate, process and record vast quantities of information, but does this amount to science? No matter how rational and objective the process and no matter how much information was produced there would still be something missing. We would still be left with the question: what does it mean?

Science, perhaps above all else, is a search for meaning. By this I do not want to imply that science is a search for purpose in the universe (though historically that has often been the case), but simply that science is a way that we make sense of the world. Moreover, if we are able to make sense of the world it is because we are able to make it make sense to us within our own sense-making environment or culture. Only when we can talk of computers having their own culture will we be able to talk about a computer being able to do science (and then only with reference to its own culture not ours).

This is an edited extract from Understanding Popular Science.

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