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INTRODUCTION

January 1966

20. A modern electronic computer can store and process a very large amount of information, it can perform arithmetical and logical operations very rapidly and can communicate directly or indirectly with other computers and similar devices. It can therefore handle problems of great length and complexity which would otherwise be impossible to perform or, at best, exceedingly laborious. The use of computers is of importance for many different purposes: the efficiency of much of modern industry is becoming increasingly dependent upon computer control; their use is equally important for the efficient organisation of commerce and business management and for predicting statistical trends. Computers are already indispensable in many branches of research, in the physical sciences and mathematics, in economic and social studies, and in linguistic analysis. In almost every field of science and technology physical problems as a matter of normal procedure are represented in model form by mathematical equations and the associated logical language. In most cases these models are intractable by formal analysis, so that one either has to introduce further approximations which make the model less realistic, or one is forced to numerical techniques requiring the use of computers. Especially for the evaluation of costly plant and complex experiments the latter approach has become vital; indeed it represents an economic gain because it lessens the need for even more costly experimentation.

21. Computers are used extensively in the interpretation of the results of experimental research. Two British scientists have recently won Nobel Prizes for their work in determining the structures of biologically important molecules. This type of work requires exhaustive computer analysis of the results of X-ray diffraction experiments. For research in high energy physics, which provides fundamental information about the interactions between subatomic particles, a powerful computer must be used in order to extract the maximum of information from a very large number of events requiring massive and costly apparatus to produce and observe. Similar problems arise in space research; a successful satellite experiment creates a wealth of data which would be almost meaningless without the aid of computer analysis. The radio astronomers at Cambridge have succeeded in surveying the universe to much greater distances than have been achieved before, using a method of aperture synthesis in which computer analysis plays an essential role.

22. Computers are also being used increasingly in problems of engineering design. Indeed, without extensive computer analysis the design and optimization of a modern nuclear power station, for example, would be virtually impossible. In many problems, such as in aiding medical diagnosis, in automatic translation, and in information retrieval, the potentialities of computer applications are as yet only beginning to be fully appreciated. From experience of how the use of computers has already revolutionised the physical and engineering sciences, however, it is certain that these new applications will also have profound effects in their respective fields.

23. The use of computers is equally important in more theoretical studies such as, for example, the structure of atoms, molecules, liquids and solids; the study of chemical kinetics; the origin of the elements and the evolution of stars and stellar systems; and more recently in the development of models of the nervous system, especially the brain.

24. The development of computers and of computer techniques is an inter-disciplinary activity requiring the participation of specialists in many different branches of mathematics, physics and electrical engineering. Much of the early development work during the late 1940's was carried out in the Universities of Cambridge, London and Manchester, and at the National Physical Laboratory; British Universities and research institutions continue to make major contributions to the development of computer technology. Equipment and techniques required for fundamental research work are frequently more advanced than those required in other applications so that the use of computers for research provides an important stimulus for the development of novel and more powerful techniques. Now that the gap between the business computer and the research computer is narrowing this stimulus is likely to become of increasing importance.

25. Electronic computers are thus not at all the research equipment of a small body of workers in a narrow field of specialization; they have become essential tools in the work of a large proportion of workers in Universities, in research laboratories, and in industry. Equally an understanding of computers and their applications must be given to many undergraduates whose lives and careers will be affected in varying degree as the use of computers in government, commerce, medicine, industry and research continues to grow.

26. Many Universities have Departments of Computer Science which, in addition to providing a computer service, give regular postgraduate courses of instruction in machine computation, as do certain of the laboratories of the Research Councils. Not a few university departments, especially in engineering, have already recognised computation as a necessary part of an undergraduate course, comparable in importance for the engineer to the use of machine tools or the drawing board. Increasing numbers of graduates with some knowledge of computation are required for research, for industrial design and for managerial posts, in addition to the smaller but significant numbers of specialists required to work in the computer industry and to manage computer installations.

27. If the Universities and the Research Councils are to prosecute advanced research effectively, contribute to the development of computer technology, and provide training in computer science, they must be provided with computer facilities on a more adequate and rational basis than has been the case in the past. The present Report is primarily concerned with making a realistic assessment of their needs for the next few years and of how the needs might most expediently be met.