What is Computer | Introduction | Characteristics | Use | Limitation

What is Computer | Introduction | Characteristics | Use | Limitation
What is Computer | Introduction | Characteristics | Use | Limitation

Man’s continuous search for fast and accurate calculating devices ultimately brings us to the modern age that can be rightly called as the Computer Age. The computer – a package of metal, plastic and wires is truly an amazing machine. This machine is creating sweeping and dramatic changes in all spheres of our present life and working environment. It has transformed and is transforming the ways in which we do our businesses; we learn; we conduct scientific and engineering probes; we play and entertain ourselves … It is said that this machine will improve world’s culture by allowing people not only to be more productive but to have more free time to create.

Why Computers?

Two major factors that stimulate development in any field are the following:

  • Demand of users and potential users
  • Available technology

Prior to the industrial revolution computers were only used for scientific research. Their potential was first recognized by the US Army during the world war. They were used to keep track of the movement of arms and ammunition. Following the industrial revolution, people felt that computers could also be used for commercial purpose. For example, in the banks to maintain efficient banking system, in industrial and business houses to maintain their inventory for accounts management, sales and budgeting, production and planning.

At the same time dramatic development in the Electrical, Electronic and Communication Engineering together with software expertise has enabled many of these demands to be met. One such engineering technology is the Information Technology, popularly known as IT, which brought computers to our homes and offices. This led to a revolution in the IT industry, keeping in mind the need of the modern era that believed in the speedy storage and retrieval of information, at any point of time. This resulted in an effective and efficient working environment. Thus, the modern age is rightly called the ‘Computer Age’, making computers indispensable. Current growth in the Information Technology is leading to the concept of Paperless Offices.

Advantages of Computers

  • Perform repetitive tasks
  • More accurate while dealing with large numbers
  • Work at constant efficiency
  • Are used in almost every field
  • Process millions of instructions in a fraction of a second
  • Effective and efficient data storage and retrieval

What Is A Computer?

The word “computer” comes from the word ‘compute’, which means to calculate. So a computer is normally considered to be a calculating device. In fact the original objective for inventing the computer was to create a fast calculating machine. But more than 90% of the work done by computers today is of non-mathematical or non-numerical nature.
Hence, to define a computer merely as calculating device is to ignore over 90% of its work.
More accurately, a computer may be defined as a device that operates upon information or data. Data can be anything like bio-data of various applicants when the computer is used for recruiting personnel, or the marks obtained by various students in various subjects when the computer is used to prepare results, or the details (name, age, sex etc.) of various passengers when the computer is employed for making airline or railway reservations, or numbers of different types in case of application of computers for scientific research problems, etc. Thus

Computer can be defined as an electronic device for processing data that takes data input from its user, stores, processes data and generates the required output as per the processing instructions given to it by the user.

The fact that computers process data is so fundamental that many people have started calling it a data processor. The name data processor is more inclusive because modern computers not only compute in the usual sense but also perform other functions with the data that flow to and from them. For example, data processor may

  • gather data from various sources;
  • merge (process of mixing or putting together) them all;
  • sort (process of arranging in some sequence-ascending or descending) them; and
  • Print them in desired format.

Thus computers not only can add, subtract, multiply and divide numbers but can also do certain logical operations; can remember (i.e. store and recall information); can communicate with operators; can direct themselves in a predetermined manner; can process a large volume of data effortlessly; can interpret massages from remote locations. Computers undertake repetitive and boring tasks, relieving us for more critical, creative activities. Computers offer unmatched speed, performance, and accuracy in data processing. Computers work at constant efficiency and perform tasks repeatedly without errors, avoiding the fatigue, that affect human beings. Computers can be used in almost every field and for almost every purpose. Computers allow society to undertake new activities in various fields and to function more efficiently. Computers are impartial.

They offer a mean of data processing unaffected by social, religious or cultural bias and prejudice. Computers offer effective and efficient data storage and retrieval, highest degree of integrity and reliability.

the Computer System

Computers come in many varieties, including the personal computer, tiny computers built into appliances and automobiles, and mainframe machines used by many people simultaneously to run a business. Despite their differences in size and use, all these computers are part of a system. A complete computer system consists of four parts: hardware, software, people, and data (see Figure 1-1)

Characteristics Of A Computer System

Computers are not just adding machines; they are capable of doing complex activities and operations. They can be programmed to do complex, tedious and monotonous tasks. All computers have certain common characteristics irrespective of their type and size. The following are the important characteristics which took together, enable a computer to surpass its performance in some tasks in which the human beings cannot perform efficiently:

  • Speed: A computer is a very fast device capable of data processing at unbelievable speed. It can perform in a few seconds the amount of work that a human being may not be able to do in an entire year even if he works day and night and does nothing else. Computers can process millions of instructions per second thus carrying out even the complex tasks in fractions of seconds without any mistake. While talking about the speed of a computer, we do not talk in terms of seconds or even milliseconds (10-3). Our units of speed are the microseconds (10-6), the nanoseconds (10-9), and even the picoseconds (10-12). A powerful computer is capable of performing about 3 to 4 million simple arithmetic operations per second.
  • Accuracy: In addition to speed, the computer has high accuracy in computing. The accuracy of a computer is consistently high and the degree of accuracy of a particular computer depends upon its design. But for a particular computer, each and every calculation is performed with the same accuracy. Errors can occur in a computer, but these are mainly due to human rather than technological weakness. The errors in computer are due to errors in programming and operation by human and due to inaccurate data.
  • Versatility: A computer is a very versatile machine. Versatility is one of the most wonderful features of the computer in the sense that they are not only capable of handling complex arithmetical problems, but can do equally well other number of jobs. They can perform activities ranging from simple calculations to performing complex CAD modeling and simulations to navigating missiles and satellites. In other words, computers can be programmed to perform any task that can be reduced to a series of logical steps. Computers can communicate with other computers and can receive and send data in various forms like text, sound, video, graphics, etc. We, now, live in a connected world and all this is because of computers and other related technologies.
  • Diligency: Unlike human beings, a computer is free from monotony, tiredness, lack of concentration etc. and hence can work for hours together without creating any error and without grumbling. Due to this property computers obviously score over human beings in doing routine type of jobs, which require greater accuracy. They will perform the tasks that are given to them – irrespective of whether it is interesting, creative, monotonous or boring; irrespective of whether it is the first time or the millionth time – with exactly the same accuracy and speed.
  • Storage Capability: Computers have their main memory and auxiliary memory systems. A computer can store a large amount of data. With more and more auxiliary storage devices, which are capable of storing huge amounts of data, the storage capacity of a computer is virtually unlimited. The factor that makes computer storage unique is not that it can store vast amount of data, but the fact that it can retrieve the information that the user wants in a few seconds. Every piece of information can be retained as long as desired by the user and can be recalled as and when required. Even after several years, the information recalled is as accurate as on the day when it was fed to computer. A computer forgets or looses certain information only when it is asked to do so. So it is entirely up to the user to make a computer retain or forget particular information.
  • Reliability: Reliability of the computers is indeed very high. Modern electronic components have long failure free lives. A microprocessor chip is said to have a life of 40 years even under adverse conditions and much before it fails, it will become obsolete. Computers are also designed in modular form so as to make maintenance easy; when a component fails, it can be replaced or repaired at a minimal cost.
  • Automation: The level of automation achieved in a computer is phenomenal. It is not a simple calculator where you have to punch in the numbers and press the equal to sign to get the result. Once a task is initiated, computers can proceed on its own till its completion. Computers can be programmed to perform a series of complex tasks involving multiple programs. Computers will perform these things flawlessly. They will execute the programs in the correct sequence, they will switch on/off the machines at the appropriate time, they will monitor the operational parameters, and they will send warning signals or take corrective actions if the parameters exceed the control level, and so on. Computers are capable of these levels of automation, provided they are programmed correctly.

Capabilities Of Computers

Stepping down from the domains of technical people such as scientists and engineers; computer, today, is a very familiar household word. In 1950’s computers were special purpose machines, which only huge institutions such as governments and universities could afford. In the 1960’s modern computer began to revolutionize the business world and today it has become popular with all kinds of people from business to employees, from doctors to lawyers and from players to school going children. Today, computers are directly or indirectly influencing every aspect of our lives. Wherever human intellect and technology meet, we will find computers. Computers of all sizes and shapes are used for every purpose imaginable – from selling railway tickets to running washing machines; from stock market analysis to playing games; from publishing a new letter to designing a building… They can perform activities ranging from simple calculations to performing complex CAD modeling and simulations to navigating missiles and satellites. Computers can communicate with other computers and can receive and send data in various forms like text, sound, video, graphics, etc. This ability of computer to communicate to one another has led to the development of computer networks, Internet, WWW and so on. Today, we can send e-mail to people all around the world. We, now, live in a connected world and all this is because of computers and other related technologies.

Uses of Computers

During the last four decades, computers have revolutionized almost all disciplines of our life. Computers have made possible many scientific, industrial and commercial advances that would have been impossible otherwise. Computers are being used in many areas of application viz. business, industry, scientific research, defence, space, communications, medicine, education and so on. The utilisation of computers in different fields is summarised in Table

Application AreaUse of Computers
Scientific ResearchUsed to resolve complex scientific problems accurately in a short time
BusinessUsed in banks, airports, share markets, hotels, export houses, Government offices and others for rising business applications like MIS, Payroll, Inventory, Financial Accounting etc.
DefenseUsed to computerize warplanes, ships, radars and many advanced weapons
SpaceUsed to design computerized space satellites, rockets and related technology
Data CommunicationUsed to computerize geo-graphically separated offices through networking
TelecommunicationUsed in ISDN, E-mail, Internet, Intranet, VSAT, Videoconferencing, Paging, Cellular phones etc.
MedicineUsed in hospitals and nursing homes/clinics for maintaining medical records, prescription writing, diagnostic applications and computerized scanning (CAT Scanning)
EducationUsed in development of CBT (Computer Based Teaching) / CAT (Computer Aided Teaching) programs for education
Law & OrderUsed to records data of vehicles
LibrariesUsed to develop Library Management Systems
PublishersUsed for Desk Top Publishing (DTP) for designing & printing of books
EngineeringUsed CAD (Computer Aided Designing)/CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing) by engineering companies
Used in Artificial Intelligence (Expert Systems, Robotics etc.) and Virtual Reality

Computers In Business

Computers have completely altered the structure of business. They are reshaping the basics of business. Customer service, operations, product and marketing strategies, and distribution are heavily, or sometimes even entirely, dependent on computer-enabled applications. The computers that support these functions can be found on the desk, on the shop floor, in the store, even in briefcases. Computers have become an everyday part of business life.

Figure 1-2 illustrates the fundamental roles of computers in business. Computer systems perform three vital roles in any type of organization:

Figure 1-2 Three Major Roles of Computer-based Information Systems

Let’s take a retail store as an example to illustrate these important roles. As a consumer, we have to deal regularly with the computer-based information systems that support business operations at many retail stores where we shop. For example, most retail stores now use computer-based information systems to help them record customer purchases, keep track of inventory, pay employees, buy new merchandise, and evaluate sales trends. Store operations would grind to a halt without the support of such information systems. See Figure 1-3.

Computer-based information systems also help store managers make better decisions and attempt to gain a strategic competitive advantage. For example, decisions on what lines of merchandise need to be added or discontinued, or on what kind of investment they require, are typically made after an analysis provided by computer-based information systems. This not only supports the decision making of store managers but also helps them look for ways to gain an advantage over other retailers in the competition for customers.

Computer-based Sales Processing System

Gaining a strategic advantage over competitors requires innovative use of computers and information technology. For example, store managers might make a decision to install computerized touch-screen catalog ordering systems in all of their stores, tied in with computer-based telephone ordering systems and an Internet-based computer shopping network. This might attract new customers and lure customers away from competing stores because of the ease of ordering provided by such innovative information systems. Thus, computer-based strategic information systems can help provide strategic products and services that give a business organization competitive advantage over its competitors.

Limitations Of Computers

There is no doubt that computers surpasses human being in many aspects and can perform certain tasks better, faster and cheaper. But it cannot substitute man. The words of John F Kennedy are also 100% true “Man is still the most extraordinary Computers of all”. The Computer, being an electronic device, has certain limitations, which can be summarized as follow:

  • No IQ: A computer is not a magical device. It can only perform tasks that a human being can. The difference is that it performs these tasks with unthinkable speed and accuracy. It possesses no intelligence of its own. Its IQ is zero, at least till today. Hence, only the user can determine what tasks a computer will perform. A computer cannot take its own decision in this regard. Unlike the human brain, a computer cannot think on its own, but has to be given very explicit, step-by-step instructions to make it perform a task.
  • No Feelings: Computers are devoid of emotions. They have no feelings and no instincts because they are machine. Although men have succeeded in building a memory for the computer, but no computer possesses the equivalent of human heart and soul. Based on our feelings, taste, knowledge, and experience, we often make certain judgments in our day-to-day life. But computers cannot make such judgments on their own. Their judgments are based on the instructions given to them in the form of programs that are written by us. They are only as good as man makes and uses them. They do not learn from experiences.

It is said for computers, “Garbage In Garbage Out (GIGO)”. Many of the problems with computers occur because the computer can’t tell the difference between doing something sensible versus something ridiculous. Erasing all its stored data is no different to a computer from adding two numbers. Computers operate logically, but they are incapable of acting prudently and rationally.

Thus a computer is not intelligent: it is a fast, rule-following idiot. Fast because it works at electronic speeds; rule-following because it needs to be given very detailed and complete instructions before it can do even the simplest task; and an idiot because it will unhesitatingly follow instructions even when to us it would be obvious that they were nonsense.

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