What is abstraction?

Abstraction is one of the four cornerstones of Computer Science. It involves filtering out – essentially, ignoring - the characteristics that we don't need in order to concentrate on those that we do.

Algorithms is one cornerstone of computational thinking.

In computational thinking, when we decompose problems, we then look for patterns among and within the smaller problems that make up the complex problem.

Abstraction is the process of filtering out – ignoring - the characteristics of patterns that we don't need in order to concentrate on those that we do. It is also the filtering out of specific details. From this we create a representation (idea) of what we are trying to solve.

What are specific details or characteristics?

In pattern recognition we looked at the problem of having to draw a series of cats.

We noted that all cats have general characteristics, which are common to all cats, eg eyes, a tail, fur, a liking for fish and the ability to make meowing sounds. In addition, each cat has specific characteristics, such as black fur, a long tail, green eyes, a love of salmon, and a loud meow. These details are known as specifics.

In order to draw a basic cat, we do need to know that it has a tail, fur and eyes. These characteristics are relevant. We don't need to know what sound a cat makes or that it likes fish. These characteristics are irrelevant and can be filtered out. We do need to know that a cat has a tail, fur and eyes, but we don't need to know what size and colour these are. These specifics can be filtered out.

From the general characteristics we have (tail, fur, eyes) we can build a basic idea of a cat, ie what a cat basically looks like. Once we know what a cat looks like we can describe how to draw a basic cat.

A cat stamp is a general model of a cat without added specifics regarding the cats appearance.

Why is abstraction important?

Abstraction allows us to create a general idea of what the problem is and how to solve it. The process instructs us to remove all specific detail, and any patterns that will not help us solve our problem. This helps us form our idea of the problem. This idea is known as a ‘model’.

If we don’t abstract we may end up with the wrong solution to the problem we are trying to solve. With our cat example, if we didn’t abstract we might think that all cats have long tails and short fur. Having abstracted, we know that although cats have tails and fur, not all tails are long and not all fur is short. In this case, abstraction has helped us to form a clearer model of a cat.