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An Introduction to Algorithms

In the modern world, algorithms do much of the digital heavy lifting.

Algorithms control the inner-workings of everything from particle accelerators to stock markets. They determine the news you see, what search results you get, how computers learn, and what gets recommended to you on Netflix or Amazon.

In short, society couldn’t function as-is without algorithms – and as we lean on them to run more things, it becomes more important for us to learn what they are and what they do.

Algorithms 101

Today’s infographic from Futurism digs into the origins of algorithms, and how they impact our everyday lives.

What are algorithms?

What is an Algorithm?

An algorithm is a predetermined set of steps for a computer to accomplish a task. It’s basically an instruction manual. And as in life, instruction manuals can be simple (e.g. building an Ikea side table) or extremely complex (e.g. filing a patent).

Below is “Sorting Out Sorting” (1981), a timeless primer on sorting methods. It clearly demonstrates the way computers approach sorting vast quantities of information by following a set of instructions.

A famous example of an algorithm is Google’s PageRank, which determines the order in which websites appear in Google’s search rankings. PageRank’s methodology is explained succinctly and effectively in the video below.

By building on a stochastic model called the Markov chain, PageRank revolutionized the way the world accesses information. The power of this algorithm is partially responsible for Google’s ability to control 41% of the online ad market, which is where Alphabet still generates the majority of its revenue.

How Algorithms Influence Society

Social platforms play a substantial role in delivering news and information to us. In fact, an estimated 44% of the U.S. population consumes news via Facebook. The more we rely on social networks to supply us with news, the more algorithms will influence what information we’re exposed to. Since social platforms are designed to serve us customized content, there is a growing concern that we are creating online echo chambers that crowd out opposing views.

Algorithms also have a profound influence on our economy. Roughly 50% of the market moves through high frequency trading – the process of using dedicated programs to make automated trading decisions to place orders. Large portions of our economy are now managed with very little human intervention.

In recent years, progress in the field of artificial intelligence has generated an abundance of interest and excitement. Deep learning (a technique for implementing machine learning) is making all kinds of machine-assisted tasks possible. Preventive healthcare, driverless vehicles, drug discovery, bioinformatics, and hyper-customized recommendations on shopping websites are all here today or coming down the pipeline.

Deep Learning

The remarkable thing about deep learning is that it goes beyond what any human can program a computer to do. Programmers have instead used a learning algorithm – fueled by terabytes of data – to train it to perform complex tasks. The computer essentially figures out for itself how to recognize the desired objects, text, or actions.

Breakthroughs like this are the reason AI startups are now receiving billions of dollars of funding.

AI funding

The Algorithmic Economy

The potential upside for technology providers are enormous, particularly if proprietary processes work on a global scale. An era where “things” will communicate autonomously and take actions without human intervention is sure to profoundly impact our society.

The big question is, what will we do once computers and algorithms are taking care of business?

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