An **algorithm** is a procedure used for solving a problem or performing a computation. Algorithms act as an exact list of instructions that conduct specified actions step by step in either hardware- or software-based **routines**.

Algorithms are widely used throughout all areas of IT. In mathematics, computer programming and computer science, an algorithm usually refers to a small procedure that solves a recurrent problem. Algorithms are also used as specifications for performing data processing and play a major role in automated systems.

An algorithm could be used for **sorting sets of numbers** or for more complicated tasks, such as recommending user content on **social media**. Algorithms typically start with initial input and instructions that describe a specific computation. When the computation is executed, the process produces an output.

## Table of Contents

## What is an algorithm?

An algorithm is a sequence of instructions that a computer must perform to solve a well-defined problem. It essentially defines what the computer needs to do and how to do it. Algorithms can instruct a computer how to perform a calculation, process data, or make a decision.

The best way to understand an algorithm is to think of it as a recipe that guides you through a series of well-defined actions to achieve a specific goal. Just like a recipe produces a replicable result, algorithms ensure consistent and reliable outcomes for a wide range of tasks in the digital realm.

And just like there are numerous ways to make, for example, chocolate chip cookies by following different steps or using slightly different ingredients, different algorithms can be designed to solve the same problem, with each taking a distinct approach but achieving the same result.

Algorithms are virtually everywhere around us. Examples include the following:

- Search engines rely on algorithms to find and present relevant results as quickly as possible
- Social media platforms use algorithms to prioritize the content that we see in our feeds, taking into account factors like our past behavior, the popularity of posts, and relevance.
- With the help of algorithms, navigation apps determine the most efficient route for us to reach our destination.

## How do algorithms work?

Algorithms work by following a set of instructions or rules to complete a task or solve a problem. They can be expressed as **natural languages**, programming languages, **pseudocode**, flowcharts and control tables. Natural language expressions are rare, as they are more ambiguous. Programming languages are normally used for expressing algorithms executed by a computer.

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It use an initial input along with a set of instructions. The input is the initial data needed to make decisions and can be represented in the form of numbers or words. The input data gets put through a set of instructions, or computations, which can include arithmetic and decision-making processes. The output is the last step in an algorithm and is normally expressed as more data.

For example, a search algorithm takes a search query as input and runs it through a set of instructions for searching through a **database** for relevant items to the query. Automation software acts as another example of algorithms, as automation follows a set of rules to complete tasks. Many algorithms make up automation software, and they all work to automate a given process.

## Properties of Algorithms

If algorithms are somewhat language agnostic, how do we define them? There’s the question of what they do, which we’ll get onto in a minute. But when designing an algorithm, two key factors are also crucial: time complexity and space complexity.

Time complexity refers to how long it takes the algorithm to work through its process and produce an output. If it has a time-critical aspect, this timescale factor can be crucial.

Designers of algorithm might reduce the time complexity by breaking down a problem into a set of smaller problems, the solutions to which are held in memory. This can often help avoid work being needlessly repeated. It is effectively giving an algorithm a more elegant and better-optimized structure, through a process called dynamic programming.

Doing so will also often affect the other key property, space complexity. This denotes how much memory is required to store data while the algorithm is running, and this will typically be stored in a computer’s RAM or as a temporary file on its storage drive.

## What are different types of algorithms?

There are several types of algorithms, all designed to accomplish different tasks:

**Search engine algorithm.**This algorithm takes**search strings**of keywords and**operators**as input, searches its associated database for relevant webpages and returns results.**Encryption algorithm.**This computing algorithm transforms data according to specified actions to protect it. A symmetric**key**algorithm, such as the**Data Encryption Standard**, for example, uses the same key to encrypt and decrypt data. If the algorithm is sufficiently sophisticated, no one lacking the key can decrypt the data.**Greedy algorithm.**This algorithm solves optimization problems by finding the locally optimal solution, hoping it is the optimal solution at the global level. However, it does not guarantee the most optimal solution.**Recursive algorithm.**This algorithm calls itself repeatedly until it solves a problem. Recursive algorithms call themselves with a smaller value every time a recursive function is invoked.**Backtracking algorithm.**This algorithm finds a solution to a given problem in incremental approaches and solves it one piece at a time.**Divide-and-conquer algorithm.**This common algorithm is divided into two parts. One part divides a problem into smaller subproblems. The second part solves these problems and then combines them to produce a solution.**Dynamic programming algorithm.**This algorithm solves problems by dividing them into subproblems. The results are then stored to be applied to future corresponding problems.**Brute-force algorithm.**This algorithm iterates all possible solutions to a problem blindly, searching for one or more solutions to a function.**Sorting algorithm.**Sorting algorithms are used to rearrange data structures based on a comparison operator, which is used to decide a new order for data.**Hashing algorithm.**This algorithm takes data and converts it into a uniform message with a**hashing**.**Randomized algorithm.**This algorithm reduces running times and time-based complexities. It uses random elements as part of its logic.

## Uses of Algorithms

Algorithms have a wide range of applications in various fields. Here are some common uses of algorithms:

### 1. Computer Science and Programming

In computer science and programming, algorithms are used to solve complex problems efficiently. They form the foundation of computer programs and enable tasks like data processing, image and video compression, and encryption.

### 2. Internet Search and Recommendations

Algorithm power search engines like Google, helping users find relevant information quickly. These algorithms analyze web pages, index content, and rank search results based on relevance. Algorithms also play a crucial role in recommendation systems, suggesting products, movies, or music based on user preferences and behavior.

### 3. Financial Analysis and Trading

Algorithms are extensively used in finance for tasks like risk assessment, portfolio optimization, and high-frequency trading. These algorithms analyze market data, identify trends, and make trading decisions in milliseconds, maximizing profits and minimizing risks.

### 4. Healthcare and Medicine

In healthcare, algorithms are used for medical imaging, disease diagnosis, and treatment planning. Machine learning algorithm can analyze medical data, detect patterns, and assist in early detection of diseases like cancer. Algorithms also help in optimizing treatment plans and predicting patient outcomes.

### 5. Transportation and Logistics

It plays a vital role in optimizing transportation and logistics operations. They help in route planning, vehicle scheduling, and inventory management, ensuring efficient delivery of goods and services. Algorithms also contribute to traffic management systems and ride-sharing platforms.

## Characteristics of Algorithms:

**Precision:**Algorithms are precise and unambiguous, providing clear instructions for each step without room for interpretation.**Finiteness:**An algorithm must have a finite number of steps, meaning that it must eventually reach an endpoint.**Input and Output:**Algorithm take input, perform a series of operations, and produce output. The output should be directly related to the input.**Effectiveness:**Algorithm must be effective, meaning they solve the problem they were designed for. They should also be efficient, minimizing the use of resources such as time and memory.**Termination:**Every algorithm must eventually terminate, bringing the computation to a conclusion.

## What are examples of algorithms?

**Machine learning** is a good example of an algorithm, as it uses multiple algorithms to predict outcomes without being explicitly programmed to do so.

Machine learning uses **supervised learning** or **unsupervised learning**. In supervised learning, data scientists supply complex algorithm with labeled training data and define the variables they want the algorithm to assess for correlations. Both the input and the output of the algorithm are specified.Unsupervised machine learning involves algorithms that train on unlabeled data and sift through it to look for patterns that can be used to group data points into subsets. Most types of **deep learning**, including **neural networks**, are unsupervised algorithms.

Machine learning **used in artificial intelligence** also relies on algorithms. However, machine learning-based systems may have **inherent biases in the data** that feeds the machine learning algorithm. This could result in systems that are untrustworthy and potentially harmful.

Although algorithm is used extensively in computer science, AI and machine learning scenarios, they’re also employed frequently in everyday life.

The following are some examples of algorithms used in real life:

**Following a recipe.**Recipes provide a series of steps to achieve a particular objective, such as preparing blueberry muffins or making spaghetti sauce from scratch. Recipes aim to produce consistent results and help individuals — regardless of their background — create a specific dish by following detailed instructions. In this way, recipes mirror computer science algorithm, which outline steps for generating reproducible outcomes.**Tying shoelaces.**Tying shoelaces is another example of following an algorithm. For example, there are a finite number of steps that lead to a properly tied traditional shoelace knot, which is often referred to as the “bunny rabbit” or “loop, swoop and pull” knot.**Facial recognition.****Facial recognition**is widely used in iPhone logins as well as**Snapchat**and**Instagram**filters. It works by projecting facial traits from a photo or video onto a biometrics map using an algorithm. The program then looks for a match between this map and a database of faces to confirm the user’s identification. If facial recognition is used for Snapchat or Instagram filters, there is no need for searching the database because the algorithm simply builds a map of the face and applies the filter to it.**Traffic signals.**Traffic signals use smart algorithms to manage traffic flow. These algorithms group different algorithms or movements, such as going straight or turning right, into phases, which helps ensure safety and efficiency. For example, when a motorist approaches a red light, the traffic signal is cycling through these phases. By evaluating the volume of traffic, an algorithm decides when it’s safe for the vehicle to move forward.**Sorting documents and papers.**This is a great example of how algorithms can be used for various tasks and purposes, such as sorting files alphabetically, by word count, by date, or by any other specifications. When someone arranges their personal or professional documents according to a set of instructions, they are applying algorithmic thinking to simplify the organization process by using small tasks.**Searching for a book in the library.**Finding a library book is like following an algorithm or a step-by-step plan. For example, there are different ways to do it, such as using the library’s computer system or looking for labels on the shelves that show the book’s genre, subject or author. No matter which method one chooses, if it can be explained and done by others, then it can be classified as an algorithm.

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## Algorithms Work Toward the Optimal Solution

Regardless of the programming language being used, an algorithm produces a result or output based on a set of inputs and a defined series of computational steps. The nature of this output can vary widely depending on the algorithm’s purpose and the problem it is designed to solve.

Here are some common types of outputs produced by algorithms:

**Solutions to problems:**Algorithms are often designed to solve specific problems, such as calculating the shortest path between two points on a map, sorting a list of numbers, or finding the greatest common divisor of two integers.**Decisions or classifications:**In machine learning and decision-making algorithms, the output can be a decision or classification. For example, a spam detection algorithm classifies emails as “spam” or “not spam,” while a recommendation algorithm decides which products or content to suggest to a user.**Numerical values:**Many algorithms perform calculations and produce numerical values as outputs. This includes algorithms for mathematical computations, such as finding the root of an equation or calculating statistical measures from a dataset.**Data structures:**Some algorithms organize or manipulate data and produce modified data structures as output. For instance, sorting algorithms rearrange lists or arrays into a specific order, while graph algorithms might output a tree or a set of connected components within a graph.**Visual representations:**Algorithm in computer graphics and visualization convert numerical data into visual forms, such as images, charts, or animations. For example, rendering algorithms generate the 2D images from 3D models that we see in video games and simulations.**Textual content:**It designed for natural language processing or generation can produce textual content as output. This includes algorithms that generate human-like text, translate languages, or summarize long documents.**Signals or physical actions:**In robotics and embedded systems, it can produce signals that control motors or other actuators, resulting in physical actions in the real world. This could be as simple as turning on a light or as complex as coordinating the movements of a robotic arm.

## The Future of Algorithm

As technology continues to evolve, so too will the field of algorithm. The future promises advancements in quantum computing, further blurring the lines of what was once deemed computationally impossible. Additionally, the ethical considerations surrounding algorithms will likely prompt the development of frameworks and guidelines to ensure responsible and fair usage.

### 1. Quantum Algorithms:

- The advent of quantum computing introduces the possibility of solving certain problems exponentially faster than classical computers, paving the way for new quantum algorithm.

### 2. Explainable AI:

- Efforts are underway to make artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithm more transparent and explainable, addressing concerns related to biased decision-making.

### 3. Responsible AI Practices:

- The development and adoption of ethical frameworks will guide the responsible use of algorithm, emphasizing fairness, transparency, and accountability.

### 4. Human-AI Collaboration:

- Algorithm will increasingly work in tandem with human expertise, enhancing decision-making processes across various domains.

### 5. Continued Innovation:

- As technology advances, so too will the innovation in algorithm design, ushering in solutions to complex problems and pushing the boundaries of what is computationally achievable.

## Bottom Line

The public discourse around algorithm is, unsurprisingly, a little too simplistic. There’s no one algorithm that determines your search results or the contents of your social media feeds. These are instead complex systems that will incorporate cascades, lattices and frameworks of algorithms.

Algorithms are everywhere. They determine the rhythm of the modern city, are used in the video games you may play and the apps on your phone — and not just the social media ones.

Looking a little deeper into how algorithm works will tell you not just about the colloquial algorithms of social media, online advertising and web search, but also the fundamentals of how computer systems operate.

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