Published on September 1st, 2020 | by Emergent Enterprise0
What is an Algorithm, Anyway?
Algorithms are simple yet also very powerful. As Rachel Krause writes at Mashable, algorithms affect our daily lives in many ways and will increasingly guide our choices and outcomes in the future. Is it important to know what they are and how they work in enterprise technology? Of course. An algorithm can have strengths and problems just like an employee. In fact, when developing an algorithm, it is being “trained” how to act in specific situations. Sound familiar? We train employees to work as efficiently and accurately as possible and that is our goal for algorithms as well. When integrating an algorithm into a technology, it’s important to “hire” wisely.
Illustration: Bob Al-Greene / Mashable
“The Algorithm” is impenetrable. It’s mysterious, it’s all-knowing, it’s omnipotent. Except that it’s not.
An algorithm is a simple concept that, today, has many complex manifestations. Algorithms’ central and opaque position at the heart of social networks cause some to view algorithms in general with a sort of mystical reverence. Algorithms have become synonymous with something highly technical and difficult to understand, that is either an arbiter of objective truth, or, on the other end of the spectrum, something wholly untrustworthy.
But when people refer to “the algorithm” — whether Facebook’s or another tech company’s recommendation algorithm, or just “algorithms” in general — do they really know what it means? Judging by the term is used and misused, most likely not. As Mashable embarks on our exploration of algorithms, we wanted to get something straight right off the bat: What is an algorithm, anyway?
Mashable spoke with Pedro Domingos, a computer science professor at the University of Washington who has also written about the ever-growing role algorithms play in our lives. Before you go being alternatively impressed by or distrusting of the next computer algorithm you encounter, get back to basics on the concept that’s powering our world.
1. An algorithm is a set of very specific instructions
How to bake a cake, find the sum of two plus two, or even run a country according to the U.S. Constitution are all examples of algorithms. Why? Because, according to Domingos, the definition of an algorithm is “a sequence of instructions.” That’s it!
Today, an algorithm usually refers to “a sequence of instructions that tells a computer what to do.” A computer program is an algorithm, written in a computer programming language, that a computer can understand and execute.
Algorithms written for computers also have to be extremely precise, often using the instructions “if,” “then,” and “else.” For example, a self-driving car might run on an algorithm for navigating that says “IF the directions say turn left, THEN turn left.” See how specific you have to be to make a computer follow a seemingly simple set of instructions?
In the popular imagination, have come to dominate our idea of what an algorithm is. That is, when many people think about or refer to algorithms, they’re referencing something like what TV show Netflix thinks you might like, or which international travelers . While these are extremely complicated algorithms, at their hearts, they’re still just a set of instructions a computer follows to complete a specified task.
“With computers, the algorithm can get vastly more complex,” Domingos said. “Addition is an algorithm that’s defined in a few lines of text. Computers can have algorithms that take millions of lines to define.”
2. People wrote and used algorithms long before computers even existed
As early as the Babylonian era, humans were writing algorithms to help them do the mathematical equations that allowed them to manage their agricultural society.
“There were algorithms before computers, because you don’t need a computer to execute an algorithm, the algorithm can be executed by a person,” Domingos said.
Algorithms using computers first rose to prominence in the mid-20th century, when the military began writing formulas for, say, determining where to aim a missile at a moving object. The concept then moved into business administration, with computers running formulas for administering payroll and such, and in science, for tracking the movements in the sky.