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I’ve Got Algorithm. Who Could Ask for Anything More?

The news has been filled with discussions of the so-called algorithms of Facebook and other software giants. Originally, the word algorithm had a precise meaning, but more recently it has been used to elicit undeserved respect—and perhaps to avoid deeper scrutiny.

Not too long ago, the word algorithm was pretty obscure. According to a Google search, its occurrence (in books, at least) was essentially nil until around World War II (the very beginning of the computer era), when it started to creep up.1 A recent Google search for the word returned 150 million hits;2 a search for news stories containing the word returned well over 500,000 hits;3 Amazon offered over 30,000 books with the word in their titles.4

Some of these books suggest that all we need—rather than love—is algorithms, such as The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World (Domingos 2015), The Advent of the Algorithm: The Idea that Rules the World (Berlinski 2000), and Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions (Christian and Griffiths 2016). Some of these books suggest that the combination of algorithms and big data5 means that science itself—the entire enterprise of investigation and discovery— is obsolete.

It sounds like algorithms are pretty important. So what, exactly, is an algorithm?

As originally used in the early nineteenth century, algorithm (which derives from the same root as the word algebra) meant a sequence of operations guaranteed to eventually produce the answer to a particular problem. Of course, computers hadn’t been invented yet, so the operations were performed by people, and the problems were all in pure mathematics.6 The classical idea of algorithm embodies a few simple notions:

It’s a set of rules.

• The rules specify a sequence of steps that can be performed mechanically, without any judgment.

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The God Engine How Belief develops From the Spectral to the Spectrum: Radiation in the Crosshairs I’ve Got Algorithm. Who Could Ask for Anything More?