Computer, machine that performs tasks, such as calculations or electronic communication, under the control of a set of instructions called a program. Programs usually reside within the computer and are retrieved and processed by the computer’s electronics. The program results are stored or routed to output devices, such as video display monitors or printers. Computers perform a wide variety of activities reliably, accurately, and quickly.
People use computers in many ways. In business, computers track inventories with bar codes and scanners, check the credit status of customers, and transfer funds electronically. In homes, tiny computers embedded in the electronic circuitry of most appliances control the indoor temperature, operate home security systems, tell the time, and turn videocassette recorders (VCRs) on and off. Computers in automobiles regulate the flow of fuel, thereby increasing gas mileage, and are used in anti-theft systems. Computers also entertain, creating digitized sound on stereo systems or computer-animated features from a digitally encoded laser disc. Computer programs, or applications, exist to aid every level of education, from programs that teach simple addition or sentence construction to programs that teach advanced calculus. Educators use computers to track grades and communicate with students; with computer-controlled projection units, they can add graphics, sound, and animation to their communications (see Computer-Aided Instruction). Computers are used extensively in scientific research to solve mathematical problems, investigate complicated data, or model systems that are too costly or impractical to build, such as testing the air flow around the next generation of aircraft. The military employs computers in sophisticated communications to encode and unscramble messages, and to keep track of personnel and supplies.