Ovens & Murray Advertiser - North East Regional Extra
TECH & SCIENCE
IN an era of social media, self-driving cars, smart-phones, apps, artificial intelligence and machine learning, there’s one term that gets bandied around a lot - algorithms.
If you’ve been following technology news you’ll know that algorithms play a role in virtually everything we do online - from using programs at work, to sharing posts on Facebook, to consuming media on sites like Youtube.
But what are algorithms, and how do they work?
In this article I thought we’d take a look at these mysterious things that have come to govern many aspects of our lives, and discuss some of the controversy surrounding them.
We live in a world where computers are only vaguely understood, even though they permeate every moment of our lives.
But there is one area of computer science where anyone can understand the basics of what’s going on.
That area of computer science is called programming.
Programming isn’t glamorous work, but it’s the foundation of all computer software, from Microsoft Office to automated phone callers.
And even if your knowledge of programming stems solely from bad 1980s and 90s films, you probably don’t need anyone to explain to you what a programmer does.
A programmer writes code for a computer, and the computer follows the instruction of that code to perform tasks or solve problems.
Well, in the world of computer science, an algorithm is just a fancy word for code.
Any set of instructions that tells a computer how to solve problems is an algorithm, even if the task is super easy.
When you turn on your computer, it follows a set of “how to turn on” instructions. That’s an algorithm at work. When a NASA computer uses raw radio wave data to render a photograph of outer space, that’s also an algorithm at work.
The word “algorithm” can be used to describe any set of instructions, even outside the realm of computing.
For example, your method for sorting cutlery in a drawer is an algorithm, as is the way you mow your lawn.
The controversy surrounding algorithms
Speech-to-text generally uses machine learning, but no one talks about the speechto-text “algorithm” because there is an objectively correct answer every human can instantly recognise.
No one cares about “how” the computer figures out what you said or whether it’s machine learning or not.
We just care whether the machine got the right answer.
But other applications of machine learning don’t have the benefit of having a “right” answer. That’s why algorithms have become a regular subject of conversation in the media.
An algorithm for sorting a list alphabetically is just a way of accomplishing a defined task.
But an algorithm like Google’s for somehow “ranking the best websites for a search” or YouTube’s for “recommending the best video” is much vaguer and doesn’t accomplish a defined task.
People can debate whether that algorithm is producing the results it should, and people will have different opinions on that. But, with our alphabetical sorting example, everyone can agree that the list ends up sorted alphabetically as it should. There’s no controversy.
But, the general public doesn’t use the word “algorithm” as a catchall term for computer code.
In fact, most people assume that there’s a difference between a computer code and an algorithm—but there isn’t.
Because of the word “algorithm’s” association with machine learning, its meaning has become foggy, yet its usage has grown more specific.