What Exactly Is an Algorithm? It’s Deceptively Simple.

Here is the definition of the algorithm you didn't know you needed.

An algorithm is like a recipe

You probably hear about algorithms every day, but do you really know what they are? It is, in fact, deceptively simple. An algorithm is "a set of steps for a computer to accomplish a task," per the Khan Academy's definition. Pedro Domingos, in his book The Master Algorithm, proposes an even simpler one:

"An algorithm is a sequence of instructions telling a computer what to do."

Much like a recipe or a tutorial, an algorithm provides the machine with a step-by-step to go from input to output. That allows the machine to accomplish a task such as determining the quickest way between two locations on Google Maps, or rearranging the solar panels on the International Space Station, as explains a very clear Khan Academy video.

Algorithms serve a specific purpose

An important thing to understand about algorithms is that they are unambiguous (they give precise instructions for logical operations, such as AND, OR, IF and NOT) and finite in time (the algorithm has an end, by which an output is produced). This does not mean that they are rigid by nature: machine learning algorithms, for instance, can rewrite themselves as they learn, and end up doing things they were not explicitly programmed to do -- which is the whole point of machine learning.

Algorithms are, in a way, human

But this "independence" from the programmers, in turn, does not mean that algorithm-powered machines are perfectly neutral, solely driven by efficiency.

The origin story of all algorithms is that they were written by actual people, who can endow them with biases and prejudices without even realising it.

There have been dreadful examples in the past of racist image recognition software, for instance. Algorithms can also be broken, inefficient, slow. As the Khan Academy video says, the criteria for a good algorithm is that it solves a problem, and it does so efficiently. Not all algorithms are created equal, and that responsibility befalls us humans.


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