What is an algorithm? A simple description and some famous examples
Mohammed Ibn Musa-al-Khwarizmi is a mathematician and creator of the term: “algorithm”, this term has become a buzzword, thanks to the rise of artificial intelligence.
Algorithms to suggest a possible match, algorithms to invest in stock exchanges, algorithms to predict crime, algorithms to organize our searches on the Internet… Algorithms are everywhere, even if they are unnoticed. These guide our economy, our purchases, and even our way of thinking.
But what is an algorithm?
If you’re reading this article and have a technical background, you may know what an algorithm is, and you may even write algorithms frequently.
But there are millions of people who are unsure of what that term means and how it affects our lives. In fact, “what is an algorithm?” is a frequent search on major search engines.
Regardless of your background, stay with us! In this article we are going to answer this question: what is an algorithm? and we will discover some of today’s most influential algorithms.
What is an algorithm?
If we refer to mathematics, which is the field in which the term originates, we can say that algorithm is an ordered and finite set of operations that must be followed in order to solve a problem.
And what exactly does this mean? Let’s break it down into two parts.
- It is an orderly set of operations, which means that it is a chain of precise instructions that must be followed in an orderly manner.
A good way to figure it out is through a cooking recipe, which is still a simple algorithm. In any of them, a specific and orderly procedure is described (“First you heat half a pot of water. Then add a pinch of salt. Then cut the pepper into pieces, removing the seeds and the nerves…“), therefore each of these operations is what makes up the algorithm.
Thus, the algorithm will take the form of a flowchart.
- Its purpose is to solve a problem, which means that it has a defined objective.
This is the part which makes things a little more complicated. When we write an algorithm, we do it to produce a result. It’s not just a matter of writing a nice set of commands that lead nowhere, it’s done rationally and with a specific object.
What happens is that reality always makes things complicated. If, for example, we create an algorithm designed to work in real life, the orders in the algorithm must include instructions that consider the different situations we may face.
Thus, the shape of the flowchart that forms the algorithm will become an enormous “tree” of instructions that, depending on its complexity, may even give us surprising results.
What are algorithms used for?
Once you have established the limits of what an algorithm is, you will wonder how it is used in our daily lives.
Since this is a technological blog and deeply related to information technology, we are going to focus on this field which is also making algorithms trendy.
When a developer creates a program, he is essentially creating a set of algorithms. A computer program is a set of commands given to the machine, written in a specific language, to perform a series of specific operations in order to obtain a result.
As you can imagine, a raw computer does not understand human language. That’s why, to communicate with your computer, the programmer uses the programming languages.
The programming language is therefore the tool that serves as a bridge between the human language and the language that the machine can understand. Therefore, the programmer can develop the algorithms and create a series of instructions that the computer can “understand” thanks to the programming language (since computers do not have their own will, they have no other choice but to do so).
Learn about some algorithms that are more famous (and influential) than a rock star
While all this may sound formal, and even boring, programmers around the world have made some algorithms as famous as movie stars and more influential than any politician. Let’s meet some of them.
- PageRank, by Google.
It is one of the most widely used in the world. This is the set of algorithms that Google uses to determine the importance of documents indexed by its search engine.
In other words, when you do a Google search, this is one of the elements to decide the order in which the results will be displayed.
- The Facebook Timeline algorithm.
This is another algorithm that influences our life much more than we might think.
The set of algorithms that feed the Facebook Timeline determines the contents that will be displayed in the most visited space of the social network. Thus, based on a series of parameters (personal tastes, response to previous content, etc.), the algorithms decide which content the social network will show us and in which order it will do so.
- High Frequency Trading Algorithms.
They circulate billions of dollars in the markets every day. These are algorithms used by many of the most important financial institutions in the world, which launch orders on the market based on the profit they expect to obtain, according to the market conditions at any given time.
To such an extent they are relevant that such algorithms are now considered to be dominant in markets and much more influential than human operators.
- Algorithm of Round Robin.
Okay, this algorithm is probably much less well known than the previous ones, but it is widely used in the computer field. Have you ever wondered how a computer determines its priorities when it has to perform several tasks at once? Imagine, for example, that you have a word processor, a spreadsheet and a web browser open at the same time. In general, it can be said that this algorithm determines the amount of time that the CPU of a computer will spend on each of the processes in progress.
What is the future of algorithms?
Rather than thinking about the future of algorithms, some people would claim that the future belongs to them.
The algorithm is, in fact, at the heart of such potentially powerful technologies as artificial intelligence. Algorithms are already the basis of automatic learning technologies, or “machine learning”, thus surprising us every day with new features. If you are particularly interested in the subject of artificial intelligence, you can consult other previous articles on this subject in our blog.
Today, algorithms are behind technologies such as virtual assistants or autonomous vehicles. But what about tomorrow…?
And what do you think? Will algorithms ever take over the Earth? You can take part in this post by leaving your opinion in the comment section at the end of this article.
And may the altgorithms be good to us…
El equipo de redacción de Pandora FMS está formado por un conjunto de escritores y profesionales de las TI con una cosa en común: su pasión por la monitorización de sistemas informáticos.
Pandora FMS’s editorial team is made up of a group of writers and IT professionals with one thing in common: their passion for computer system monitoring.