The word algorithm is an eponym. That is, it is named after someone. In this case, it is named after the person who first came across them in 780AD: Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. A great Persian scholar, he wrote a book called Concerning the Hindu Art of Reckoning, which introduced Hindu-Arabic numerals and the decimal system to the West. His name, when latinized, became algorithmi. And this then became the origin of the word algorithm. His works showed how complex problems could be broken down into smaller, simpler parts so that they could be solved. In the late 19th century, ‘algorithm’ became ‘a set of rules for solving a problem’.
Alan Turing, a British mathematician and data scientist in the 20th century, worked out how a machine could be set up to follow algorithms, that is, instructions to solve complex math problems. He built a machine that used algorithms to crack the Enigma code in World War 2, and this formed the basis on which the computer was based.
Fast forward to today, and algorithms are ubiquitous. They are used every day, everywhere, all the time. The Oxford English Dictionary defines an algorithm as follows: a set of rules that must be followed when solving a particular problem. This is very helpful in the digital/cyber age, where there is increasing use of computers, whether they are laptops or mobile phones. Algorithms keep these systems functioning by setting rules and targets. They have led to great advancements in technology, and consequently made the world more organized and ‘in-sync’.
These days, algorithms are increasingly used to tell entire systems how to behave. Cathy O’Neil PhD, Data Scientist, and the author of Weapons of Math Destruction said. “Algorithms are opinions embedded in code. Algorithms are not objective. Algorithms are optimized to some definition of success”. This is important to understand, because we inhabit a world that is increasingly reliant on algorithms, and algorithms are very subjective. That is to say, they have been set up with specific goals. These goals are set by the person who has created the algorithm, and may not always be in the best interest of society.
USES OF ALGORITHMS
- Machine Learning – Algorithms are used to set the foundations for machine learning. Setting the rules which a machine has to follow in order to function in a given way. This also sets the base for Artificial Intelligence, which can be modeled to perform tasks.
- Online Searches – Google is the most widely used search engine in the world and it uses PageRank, an algorithm to rank search results based on the importance of the web pages.
- Automation – Algorithms that are set up for the purposes of automation, for example in car companies help to keep processes structured and save time and money.
- E-Commerce – Algorithms are used by e-commerce to recognize trends in customers’ shopping, so that they can better understand their target customers and also predict preferences in order to make recommendations.
- Social Media – Algorithms are also used in the cyber space, which is used all over the world. This means that an algorithm could be written for a specific purpose in one part of the world, but it may have dire consequences in another part of the world. This has been shown in the case of social media, where disturbing, violent, even illegal content is shared with large audiences at the click of a button.
It is becoming obvious that algorithms are very pervasive in the runnings of the world today and with data being the new oil, algorithms can be set up very secretly for nefarious purposes also. They are indeed a double-edged sword and need to be used with utmost care and caution. The advancements in cyberspace are gaining speed like a meteor in space. The future holds a golden era of the cyber age, with advancements like Metaverse, Smart cars, Smart lens etc, will be running on heavy algorithms and hence the importance of the same will be felt heavily in the future.