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A woman sits at her desk writing code
Africa Studio

“Algorithm” is a word that gets thrown around a lot. But when we build conversations around YouTube or Facebook algorithms, what are we actually talking about? What are algorithms, and why do people complain about them so much?

Algorithms Are Instructions for Problem Solving

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 robocallers. And even if your knowledge of programming stems solely from bad 90’s movies and off-beat news reports, 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 instruction 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 silverware in a drawer is an algorithm, as is your method of washing your hands after using the bathroom.

A man looking uncomfortably at a laptop

But, here’s the thing: These days, the word “algorithm” tends to be reserved for some very specific tech conversations. You don’t hear people talking about “basic mathematics” algorithms or “MS Paint graffiti tool” algorithms. Instead, you hear Instagram users complaining about friend suggestion algorithms, or privacy groups bashing Facebook’s data collection algorithms.

If “algorithm” is a catchall term for computational instructions, then why do we use it almost exclusively to describe confusing, magical, and evil aspects of the digital world?

Most People Use “Algorithms” and “Machine Learning” Interchangeably

In the past, programmers and pop culture referred to most computational instructions as “code.” This remains true today, for the most part. Machine learning is the big, cloudy area of computing where we tend to use the word “algorithm” instead of “code.” This has, understandably, contributed to the confusion and unease surrounding the word “algorithm.”

Machine learning has been around for a long time, but it’s only become a large part of the digital world in the last 15 or so years. While machine learning sounds like a complicated idea, it’s pretty easy to understand. Programmers can’t write and test specific code for every situation, so they write code that can write itself.

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