We hear a lot about algorithms and the way they impact our everyday lives, especially online. Algorithms are the lines of code that underpin the digital world. All computer programs are basically algorithms, or combinations of the same. The internet, email, your phone, banking, your car’s GPS system and so much more are all run by algorithms.
An algorithm is a process, or a step-by-step series of instructions, which when followed, should arrive at a solution. Every time you carry out the process, or run the algorithm, you should arrive at the same outcome. A mathematical equation, such as 1+1=2, is an algorithm. So is a cooking recipe. An algorithm is a set of logical instructions that can be duplicated with reliable results.
As used in computer science and coding, an algorithm is still a set of rules, or a kind of recipe designed for achieving a specific outcome, but it’s written in a particular syntax or programming language for a computer to understand. An algorithm is simply a set of instructions, written by a human, that a computer follows.
One of the most important and commonplace uses of algorithms is to gather and analyze huge amounts of information, or data, that it would be impossible for human beings to easily evaluate. Using pre-defined parameters, the algorithms can crunch the numbers and suggest solutions to real-world problems. The more information that the algorithm is applied to, the more accurate the results will be.
Understanding and using algorithms is an essential aspect of data science, which is a huge growth sector with applications in government, industry, business, finance and almost every aspect of modern life. That’s why so many people are choosing to enroll in an online Master’s in Data Science, where they’ll gain the skills and knowledge to extract practical insights and solutions from any given data set.
What you see
Algorithms are most talked about in terms of how they affect social media and internet search engines like Google. This is because the parent companies frequently update their algorithms in order to provide a better service, based on what they think you’re looking for. So, an algorithm decides which websites appear first when you type any phrase into the search bar. They also determine which posts you see first on Facebook or Twitter.
Algorithms are also responsible for recommendations on online shopping sites and targeted advertising. They’re based on the principle that if you bought this item, or searched for that item online, then you might like this other item that is similar or which other people who bought/searched for the thing you bought/searched for recently purchased.
More seriously, algorithms are used in background checks and determining our credit ratings. In the future they could be increasingly used in deciding how much you pay for your mortgage or insurance, and whether you get a job or college admissions interview.
There are reasonable concerns about bias and the use of personal information that need to be addressed. However, as algorithms improve, they should reduce risk, improve rational decision-making, and empower people to do more with their lives every day.