Let’s take a second to think about that smartphone or tablet in front of you. How does it “think”? For instance, how does it “know” how to handle a heap of data and present it to you as the blinks you’re reading – or listening to – right now? The answer, of course, is that a series of instructions – or, in other words, an algorithm – enables it to do this. But, as you’ll learn from these blinks, it’s not only computers that use algorithms. They also play a part in your own thinking, in your gut feelings and decisions. And here’s the best part: when your own algorithms aren’t up to the task of solving a difficult problem in your life, you can turn to simple but powerful computer algorithms for help.
If you’re someone who tries to stay abreast of today’s technology, you probably already know that computers use algorithms all the time to solve problems. But you may have asked yourself, “What exactly is an algorithm?” The word actually dates back to the ninth century, when it was first used by the Persian mathematician Muhammad alKhwarizmi. But the use of algorithms can be traced roughly four thousand years back, to the Sumerian civilization. Simply put, an algorithm is a finite series of steps that help solve a problem – and it’s a technique we use all the time. Even a recipe can be thought of as an algorithm: you follow a series of instructions to get the desired result, a delicious meal. The same can be said for the pattern you follow to knit a scarf or put together some Ikea furniture.
And when you’re putting together a list of pros and cons to decision, you’re also following what’s known as an intuitive algorithm. By their very nature, the intuitive algorithms that humans use aren’t precise. We use them in times of uncertainty to make the best decision we can, like weighing the potential benefits against the risks of jumping into a new business investment. Therefore, these intuitive algorithms may seem rather subjective and random compared to the mathematical algorithms a computer uses, though they basically provide the same solution. Take the unpleasant task of apartment hunting. Most people go into this process with a set of criteria in mind: a minimum amount of space, a certain distance from school or work, a maximum amount of rent. When these conditions are met, that’s when you take the next step and sign the lease. This is essentially the same method that computer algorithms use, and in the next blinks we’ll explore how these methods can work for you.