In a few science fiction settings, we can see computers being called differently. A terminal, a holosphere, a pad, anything techno-sounding.

But from when computers were invented up until now, they've been renamed a few times and it never caught on. Micro computers, personal computers, portable computers... Basically, the main word remains computer.

In the same way, a phone remained a phone, a watch a watch, even though they've tremendously evolved.

Is it foreseeable that a change in the technology would bring on a new name for these devices? If so, what would be a likely name for it?

PS: for the story, this question was asked to us by MIT Media lab Director's Fellow JJ Abrams in 2013.

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    $\begingroup$ Neil Stephenson's Anathem called them "syntactic devices", iirc. Not semantic devices because they can't think, and thus can't handle semantics, but they understand syntax. $\endgroup$ – Flambino Oct 26 '14 at 21:03
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    $\begingroup$ Note that there are a whole bunch of computers in modern society that aren't ever called "computers." They're called "phones" or sometimes "tablets." $\endgroup$ – Micah Oct 26 '14 at 21:04
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    $\begingroup$ FWIW, "terminal" is not a term from the future. It's a term from the past. The author who used the term "terminal" probably had the same notion you do with the word "computer" - that we'll continue to call the device we use to access computers "terminals" forever. $\endgroup$ – slebetman Oct 27 '14 at 13:05
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    $\begingroup$ "Watch" is already a new name for (mobile) "clock" $\endgroup$ – Hagen von Eitzen Oct 27 '14 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ My wife calls her main home computer an "iPad" as in "Hey, have you seen my iPad?" - this is the only computer she uses at home. Amusingly it's not an iPad , it's an android tablet, but she uses 'iPad' as a generic term for it. $\endgroup$ – Johnny Oct 27 '14 at 20:23

11 Answers 11


TL;DR: "Computer" will likely become an implementation detail, like "transistor" is to a computer today.

Historically, "computer" referred to a person carrying out computations. Like if we called a saw a "carpenter".

Of course a carpenter does more than just saw, so we separate the job description from the tools employed. Human computers, however, literally just did computation, so the name fit the (machine) computer equally well.

As computers have taken on more and more roles, they've just taken over the name of whatever they replaced, though not always a thoroughly as with the original computers.

I suspect the word "computer" itself won't be replaced with any single word, but rather that it'll become a word like "transistor" or "capacitor" - an implementation detail.

For instance, tablets are a pretty new category of computer. It's a computer, but I don't think many would call a tablet a computer in day-to-day speech. Sure, you can point at a tablet and say "that's a computer", and people would agree, but if you asked someone "have you seen my computer?" they'd probably think you're looking for a laptop or desktop PC.

Even the fact that we can use "laptop" interchangeably with "computer" hints that the idea of a computer is less important than the form factor. On the other end, we have mainframes and servers - still computers, but they have their own nomenclature regardless.

The same works for phones, gaming consoles, and other gadgets. Obviously they're computers, but we don't call them that. We also distinguish Mac from PC (which is even stranger, considering both fit the description "personal computer", but that's a historical quirk).

Heck, you can point to washing machines, cars, and thermostats and say they're computers - and you'd be right, but more people would wonder what you mean. It just fades into the background.

One could also take the co-opting human job descriptions further: If a computer is making trades on the stock market (as they've just done millions of times in the past couple of seconds), aren't they, in effect, "traders"?

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    $\begingroup$ It's interesting that you mentioned capacitors. Around 100 years ago, usual term in English for them would be condenser (and does anyone remember the elecctric tension anymore?). There are also similar trends today in the world of computing, for example: program->application->app, or terminal->thin-client. $\endgroup$ – AndrejaKo Oct 26 '14 at 21:29
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    $\begingroup$ Also in some languages the implementation detail itself can replace the name of the device. In my language first association with word "transistor" is small transistor radio. In English, I've noticed that there's a strong association between "stereo" and "stereo radio" $\endgroup$ – AndrejaKo Oct 26 '14 at 21:32
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    $\begingroup$ What I like here is the emphasis on forms. As embedded computers become more ubiquitous, we will not refer to them as such, but rather as the device in which they live. Already, "smart" phones, which are actually also computers, are just called phones. Cars containing on-board computers are just cars. $\endgroup$ – Caleb Hines Oct 27 '14 at 1:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Pimgd Trust me, as a life-long Mac user I can tell you that that distinction has been around about as long as the guy who played Mac in those commercials :) IBM called their machines "IBM PC", and they set the standard. So the software industry and as the hardware industry - as it got commoditized - labelled its stuff as "IBM PC compatible" (as opposed of "Apple Macintosh compatible"). Soon it became just "PC compatible" and "Mac compatible", and it just sort of stuck. $\endgroup$ – Flambino Oct 27 '14 at 10:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Flambino No. Adding "er" to the end of a verb in English is the standard construction for the noun "person or thing that does the verb". Electronic computers are called computers because they compute, not because they replaced human computers (who were also called computers because they compute). $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Oct 27 '14 at 12:42

If there is a change, I would guess it would be either because of slang or genericization.

  1. Slang - When you think about it, we've given a lot of things new names, mainly just shorter versions of their original name. For example: $\text {Telephone} \rightarrow \text { Phone}$, or $\text {Hamburger} \rightarrow \text { Burger}$. I can see shorter terms being used - perhaps puter or comp. Odd, right? But I can assume we'll see something like this eventually.
  2. Genericization - You might have come across this one in your daily life. Do you know someone who owns an MP3 player? One that isn't an iPod? Well, perhaps you've come across the following scenario:

    Person #1: Cool iPod. When did you get that?

    Person #2: It's not an iPod. It's a(n) [insert name of MP3 player].

    Person #1: Whatever. Cool iPod.

    Believe it or not, I've seen this phenomenon. When one brand of product becomes so ubiquitous throughout a certain market, people start to call all products similar to it by that name. Kleenex. Powerpoint. Iphone. So if, in, say, 50 years, a company called, say, Stillnexer (or an even weirder name) comes out with a new version of a computer, there's a chance that the term for 'computer' may become 'Stillnexer'.

Thanks to Ibrahim Arief for pointing out the name of the word I was trying to think of: Genericization.

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    $\begingroup$ Maybe the term that you are looking for is genericization? $\endgroup$ – Ibrahim Arief Oct 27 '14 at 11:06
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    $\begingroup$ "Puter" is already used in English as an abbreviation for "computer". (Not to be confused with a "pooter"!) $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Oct 27 '14 at 12:24
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    $\begingroup$ The best example of this phenomenon that I know of is how "Google" (used as a verb) is synonymous with "web search". +1 $\endgroup$ – ApproachingDarknessFish Oct 27 '14 at 22:52
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    $\begingroup$ @HDE226868 No problem! (In case you weren't aware: You can use the Ctrl+K shortcut to indent list paragraphs, even though it's really meant for code. An interesting trick for indenting 8 spaces (with nested lists) is to indent 4 spaces, delete the first space on the first line, hit Ctrl+K again, and then replace the first space. But this is all completely off-topic. :P) $\endgroup$ – Doorknob Oct 28 '14 at 0:22
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    $\begingroup$ Conflation of brand names with product categories is rampant in North America but less common elsewhere in the English speaking world. A notable case outside the USA is "Lux" as a word for "vacuum cleaner" by people from New Zealand. My gf (from NZ, obviously) gets quite annoyed when I tell her that lux is Latin for light, and it's a vacuum cleaner not a lamp. $\endgroup$ – Peter Wone Oct 28 '14 at 6:05

In my opinion, the transformative technology will be natural language processing with ever more advanced learning software. I think there will be a shift from identifying with devices to identifying with software ecosystems. I openly admit I'm stealing from Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End.

Assume devices continue two important trends toward a) smaller and malleable b) interconnected. An example that supports these trends would be wrist sized computers that measure heart-rate, gait and connect via blue-tooth with a phone device, responds to phone based software, report data etc.

If you buy into this assumption, then the argument is as follows: The size of devices goes down while capability and quantity per person goes up. Interconnectedness of these devices depend on shared software ecosystems (or at least intentionally compatible). Natural language and learning comes along and provides one common user interface to mediate user interaction. Now many devices sharing a single software ecosystem are controlled through one software interface. The user naturally begins to identify less with the individual devices they have/wear/own and more with the spoken interface through which they interact with them all.

I felt Siri, Cortana and Google Now were all somewhat silly... but I do think they are forward thinking in the correct direction. Cripes... my own parents are already referring to their new tablets and phones by first names, Cloe and Susan. Wait until they can carry on a conversation and the notion of "computer" will just start to be obsolete.

So to answer the second half of your question, I think computers will be referred to through chosen personal pronouns, or possibly a generic descriptor such as 'interface', that we assign to represent a collection of devices and services. For instance, I often refer to google and the internet as the 'Oracle'. "Do you know who has the greatest vocal range of popular singers?... I dunno, why don't you ask the Oracle?"

  • $\begingroup$ Cool answer :-) $\endgroup$ – Sheraff Oct 26 '14 at 23:04
  • $\begingroup$ Speak to my agent? :) $\endgroup$ – Peter Wone Oct 28 '14 at 6:09

This is a strange question to me. Will computers be called computers in the future?

My phone is a computer, and nobody calls it a "computer" in casual conversation today. If someone said "pass me your pocket computer", it would be a strange affectation.

And it is a computer, with the processing power of a supercomputer from a decade or two ago (multi-core multiprocessor, faster than a gigahert clock speed, capable of displaying HD video in real time).

And the phone is more than just a mere computer -- it is a front end to the entire internet and all of the cloud infrastructure attached to it.

And we call it a phone.

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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, how dare we call it a phone if it doesn't even have a rotary dial ... $\endgroup$ – Hagen von Eitzen Oct 27 '14 at 16:24
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    $\begingroup$ My thoughts as well: that is a current-day example of calling a computer something different. $\endgroup$ – Jeremy Nottingham Oct 28 '14 at 13:20

Here are some historical names for computers thus far:

  • Mechanism
  • Machine / Universal Machine
  • Computing Device
  • Automatic electronic digital computer
  • Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC)
  • Mainframe ("big iron")
  • Personal Computer (PC)
  • Laptop
  • Server
  • Tablet
  • Smart Watch
  • Cell Phone, Smartphone, now usually just "Phone" because older phones are becomes obsolete
  • Device
  • Cloud
  • Wearables

I think the last few are most indicative of where names are heading. In recent years most people don't call computational devices "computers". In one sense computer networks have become very distant and ethereal, yet omnipresent... hence "cloud" becoming popular. I think this will remain a popular common name for the "out there" network.

On the other hand, computers are becoming integrated with our everyday devices, so we tend to just keep using the original device's name: phone, watch, glasses. Once computer shrink further, and cybernetics becomes common, I suspect that computers built into humans will just be called "eye", "arm", "heart", etc.

  • $\begingroup$ Note that, at least in the case of the phone, it's the old name that eventually prevailed. For limited amounts of time, the more modern variants (cellphone, smartphone) were given their own name, but as the older variants are getting obsolete, the generic name originally just used for the old variants starts getting used generally. Hence, the smartphone becomes simply a phone again. Interestingly, something similar can be seen with computers in general: While we do use specific device names, due to the differences between devices, they are all still sold in ... computer stores, right? $\endgroup$ – O. R. Mapper Nov 3 '14 at 7:47

For once, philosophy comes in handy here. A philosopher/mathematician called Frege introduced the following formal ontology { concept, object, name }. Anyone who has programmed a computer using an object-oriented language will recognise this as { class, object, name }, where an object is a named instance of a class.

So we have the concept of computation, the object is the physical computer, the name is provided by the current social conventions - it may be "pc", "smart phone", "network server", or any other of a host of names given to computational devices.

Mathematics tells us that all computational devices are logically equivalent to what we call a Turing Machine.

The really interesting question is this : Is there anything in our reality which is not a computer? Our science seems to indicate that nature is inherently computational. We have lots of fancy equations that let us compute the outcome of events. We seem to be limited only by our ability to formalize the data around us. If this view is correct, then "tree" is another name we give to a computer.


What we call a thing is generally associated with it's original, or even primary, function.

As others have point out, a phone will always be a phone regardless of what other things it may do. The most basic feature of it is to make calls. Secondary features are playing games, browsing the web, keeping a calendar, etc. Interestingly, I overheard a conversation in which my 4 year old was telling my 3 year old that "telephones" don't exist anymore, they were replaced with "phones". He was very adamant that "they are NOT the same thing". This is as funny as it is true: we do tend to shorten names as time goes on, which can lead to future generations not really associating the "new" names with the "old" items.

Also, many many things now include a computer inside. Or, at least, some type of processing capability. Washing machines, fans, even high end chairs can be fitted with a processor to make them more "intelligent". Although they include parts which could arguably be used for more general computations, these are specific implementations in order to support the original function.

A desktop, laptop and tablet are all variations on the same thing. The form factor changed, but their function is to be a general computing device. Some are better at certain things than others, but they are all a general class of computing devices. Because of this, the name "computer" is unlikely to evolve in such a device regardless of form factor except, perhaps, to a shortened form. Maybe "comp" or "puter" or something along those lines.

Now if someone can successfully replace the form factor such that it's only the interface that matters (ala Siri) then we could very well see an evolution of the term to something radically different.


If another device took over from machines that were thought of as computers (e.g. tablets taking over the role of PCs) then a name derived from that might become a generic term for a computer. An alternative would be a brand name becoming a generic term for the item. For example, desktop computers used to be called microcomputers (or Micros) until the IBM Personal Computer got popular. Now PC has become a generic term for such machines.


I'm not sure computers in the future will be anything like what we have today so it won't be just a change in name. I think the most likely scenario is what appears in some of Peter F. Hamilton's books - nanotechnology added directly to the brain to provide a direct interface. Using this technology is referred to as "datavising", but since it has no direct correlation with any device we currently have it's not really a renaming of the traditional computer.

  • $\begingroup$ I really like this path of reasoning. Looking at the computer history, I can think of two cases where similar things already happened: Terminals, which were dumb devices used to connect users to mainframes have disappeared and today we have Thin-clients which are dumb devices used to connect users to processing power offered by a server. Then there's also mini-computer, a class of computers that disappeared and whose role has been taken (more or less) by servers. $\endgroup$ – AndrejaKo Oct 26 '14 at 21:37

In Warhammer 40,000, they're called cogitators. I think the word for them will probably remain the same, as long as this current culture continues to be more or less uninterrupted. If there is some major disruption, and then it changes to a completely different worldview, it might get a new name, otherwise it will probably just slowly evolve as language evolves, it will stay, most likely, with a translation of compute, computer, think, thinking machine, thinkmachine, cogitate, comprehendor, etc. etc. that same linguistic tree or whatever translation thereof in your chosen time period or culture.


One reason why it could get a new term is if another language than English became dominant, and that language's term would replace "computer". For example, the Chinese word for computer apparently is diànnǎo (the link is to an entry in a German-Chinese dictionary). So if Chinese should ever become the dominant language, the term "computer" might over time be replaced by "diannao".

The analogue happened in Germany, where the original German word "Rechner" got almost completely replaced by "Computer".

  • $\begingroup$ that's funny. totally didn't happen that way in french though (ordinateur) but close to it in spanish (computadora). $\endgroup$ – Sheraff Oct 26 '14 at 19:14
  • $\begingroup$ The French are fairly anal about keeping their language "as pure as possible", i.e. keep anglicisms and the like out of it, hence them sticking to ordinateur. $\endgroup$ – No. 7892142 Oct 27 '14 at 10:10
  • $\begingroup$ The German example is a bit weak IMO, given that Rechner is simply the German translation of computer (rechnen = to compute; -> Rechner = someone/something that computes). The Chinese example is more interesting, given that it lterally translates to something like electrical brain (and incidentally, a somewhat common informal German word for computers is Elektronenhirn (electron brain)). $\endgroup$ – O. R. Mapper Oct 27 '14 at 20:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Sheraff: Computadora seems to be more usual in Latin America, whereas the more common word in Spain is ordenador, as outlined e.g. here. Both might be examples of either term being "replaced"/superseded by the one that is more like what is said in the respective neighbouring languages. $\endgroup$ – O. R. Mapper Oct 27 '14 at 20:20
  • $\begingroup$ @O.R.Mapper: Although it is the translation, it is nevertheless another word. Also note that it didn't replace all uses of "Rechner", a pocket calculator is still a "Taschenrechner" and was never renamed to "Taschencomputer"; this is even true for the programmable ones which are not that different in capability from early home computers. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Oct 27 '14 at 22:26

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