How Algorithms Shape the World Around Us

John Smith

The word “algorithm” is thrown around often enough for us to know that it impacts us in some way, while the details of exactly how these intricate equations work remain a bit of a mystery to many. The Khan Academy defines an algorithm as “a set of steps instructing a computer programme on how to accomplish a task.” Algorithms simplify specific problems into coherent components before calculating an educated answer. This normally results in a series of mathematical functions utilised to compile information and list specifics, which serve as the key building blocks for Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence.

Rather than spending time manually completing a complicated task, writing an algorithm is a common substitute across several areas of business and technology. There are various  types of algorithms that fall into different task categories, such as searching and sorting algorithms, path-finding algorithms, and tree and graph-based algorithms, to mention a few.

Countless applications utilise algorithms to simplify or automate daily tasks. Each time a question or term is Googled, the search engine’s algorithm sorts through more than 130 trillion webpages to deliver the most relatable, accurate result in seconds. If Google recognises a spelling error in your search, it will offer to correct you with a “Did you mean…?” suggestion. As you browse through Netflix looking for something to watch, an algorithm recommends shows that are targeted specifically to your interests based on what you’ve watched in the past. Facebook uses algorithms to place targeted ads across timelines, which are specifically curated based on previous ad engagements of that user or their Facebook friend within the same demographic profile.

Instagram also utilises algorithms, with a recent topic of discussion around ‘Shadowbanning.’ Instagram’s shadowban algorithm blocks or restricts the visibility of a user’s content as a form of protection against cyber bullying and inauthentic measures to grow an account’s following, including the use of automated bots or a plethora of hashtags. The profile owner might not be aware that their content is shadowbanned, but this algorithm ensures that all Instagram users are receiving relevant, genuine content that complies to company terms.

In a technology age such as ours, algorithms are crucial to ensuring that we don’t get lost in the vast amounts of data we produce. From personalised recommendations to using Google Maps to find the quickest route home, algorithms help shape how we interact with the world around us.

Featured image credit: Photo by Fabian Grohs on Unsplash

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