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The algorithm explained in plain English

In just about any magazine or news report today, somewhere we hear about algorithms. How they rule the world or will rule the world. They’re almost synonymous with any article written about the tech giants from Google to Amazon to Facebook. But what is an algorithm anyway? Why are the so important?

In the simplest term, an algorithm is a recipe.

It’s not the ingredients that go into the recipe, it’s the process, the steps in a recipe. An algorithm would tell you the process to make a stew through each step; cook stew meat, finely chop vegetables, add beef broth, add in broth and vegetables to meat, heat until ready. You can use the same algorithm every time you make the stew, except you may add different spices or vegetables, which is the “data” or ingredients. Humans have been using algorithms for thousands of years.

Algorithms are at the core of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Laid over top of algorithms are probability calculations. These calculations use data and today, often massive amounts of data, what we now call Big Data. Then there’s machine learning, natural language processing, neural networks, cognitive computing, pattern recognition and so on. AI can consist of these various elements mixed together in different ways. Algorithms are the processes of bringing all these ingredients together and telling them what to do.

Facebook and Google use algorithms to learn what you like or don’t like and what they think you might like or want to know. This impacts your home page feed on Facebook and what search results Google might deliver to you.

If you drive a car that’s older than 2015, then there are even algorithms in your car. The more luxurious your car, the more algorithms there will be. They help with breaking, engine performance management and how different components work together.

If you’ve seen those ads for insurance companies that offer lower rates if you load an app on your smartphone that tracks your driving? Yes, they use algorithms to compare your driving against thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of other drivers.

Whether we like it or not, algorithms are here to stay. They can be good and bad but they are a key part of AI. They are often hidden, but they are there. If you’ve ever used Siri or Alexa or Hey Google…well…