What Does Informatics Mean?


We here, in the Informatics Division (later renamed the Department of Informatics, and now called the School of Informatics), have taken the opportunity to define the word to suit our own conglomeration of computer science, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, etc.. Unfortunately we are not the first to have taken the opportunity to define the word. If we step outside English, there is the long established French Informatique which has led to coinages in other European languages. Earlier English definitions emphasised the science of library automation and scientific database construction aspects, as in medical informatics.

As a personal note on this very general theme, I have long felt that computer science was guilty of over-simplifying the computer, and that nobody really had a good handle on the full nature and implications of these interesting devices. Symptoms of the inadequacy of our current understanding are that it was possible for John Searle to assert, and be believed by many well educated computer scientists, that it is impossible to get semantics from syntax, i.e., that computers are purely syntactical engines, and that there is a serious problem (e.g. the symbol grounding problem of Stevan Harnad) in somehow bootstrapping semantics into these things, before we can proceed with using them as the brains of robots, etc..

I'm pleased to note that Brian Cantwell Smith, who has long been puzzled by these issues, has returned from a long trek in the wilderness with a book The Origin of Objects which I think starts to repair these deficiencies in the right way. From quite another starting point, David Deutsch in The Fabric of Reality suggests that

"There are four main strands of scientific explanation: quantum theory, evolution, computation, and the theory of knowledge. The four of them taken together form a coherent explanatory structure that is so far-reaching, and has come to encompass so much of our understanding of the world, that in my view it may already properly be called the first Theory of Everything."
In other words, the theory of computation, allied with the theory of knowledge, is one of the fundamental elementary components of a scientific explanation of the universe, as fundamental as quantum theory, and not some remote twig on the scientific reductionism tree, to be reached by clambering via evolution from physics to chemistry to biochemistry to physiology to neurophysiology to psychology to -- at last, a theory of knowledge. I mention this because it has a bearing on what I think ``Informatics'' ought to mean, once we've got our philosophical and terminological act together, i.e., one of the fundamental elementary explanatory threads of the universe.

Chris Malcolm October 2002