What is an Algorithm? What are the Benefits of Using Algorithms?

Gülderen Yaşar

Gülderen Yaşar

İTÜ İşletme Müh. | Editör @CEOtudent

The concept of algorithm has become an integral part of our lives. You may even have come across this content thanks to an algorithm that thinks it matches your interests. So how do algorithms affect our lives? How much are they in our lives? Let’s see together.

What is algorithm?

Algorithms are the invisible leading parts of the written code, they are planned before the code is written, they tell on paper what flow certain tasks will take and how they will be concluded. The algorithm lists what the computer has to do to create a certain output, creates a plan. Experts warn us not to think of algorithms as good or bad in themselves, and say we should pay more attention to the people who program them. Because, algorithms and codings suitable for algorithms are made by people. Malicious people spawn malicious algorithms and malicious software.

What do algorithms affect?

Algorithms decide on vital issues related to our society: such as medicine, public transport, social assistance programs, criminal justice.
We started to see the effect of algorithms on everything we touch in every area of our lives. Whenever we search on Google, browse Facebook, or use GPS, we are communicating with algorithms. These aren’t just Google searches or shopping suggestions. We invited them into our courtrooms, our hospitals, our schools, and we got them to make decisions that would change the way society works.

“Quality of life might very well be improved. In terms of solving the big problems from climate change to the supply of energy, AI should be able to help.”
– Wendy Hall – Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton


Are we making a mistake by giving decision mechanisms to algorithms?

We have a rather complicated relationship with machines. When Siri makes the slightest mistake or GPS miscalculates traffic, we think the whole machine is just a pile of garbage. This is also a wrong approach. The right attitude is this: we should neither blindly trust algorithms nor completely remove them from our lives. Of course they are not perfect. They contain the prejudices of the people who created them. However, they are incredibly effective and make our lives easier.

“We do not have to create a world in which machines are telling us what to do or how to think, altough we may very well end up in a world like that.”
– Hannah Fry – Mathematician at University College London


How can algorithms make mistakes?

Algorithms also have areas where they succeed and fail. While they are very good at diagnosing patients, they are not so good at making judgments. This is because our social relationships are quite complicated for them. There are no major factors affecting our social relations, there are millions of factors, and they have completely different consequences in completely different sociological conditions. In some trials in America, judges used these algorithms to make decisions, but they were misleading and the desired efficiency could not be obtained.

“The core problem with algorithmic-based decision-making is the lack of accountability. Machines have literally become black boxes – even the developers and operators do not fully understand how outputs are produced. We need to confront the reality that power and authority are moving from people to machines. That is why ‘algorithmic transparency’ is one of the great challenges of our era.”
– Marc Rotenberg – Electronic Privacy Information Center Manager


Are we aware of what we are creating?

Despite the convenience it provides us, there are areas where most people are concerned about algorithms. If the necessary measures are not taken while such a powerful technology is spreading so fast, it can cause many problems for human rights, personal privacy and society.
Platforms like Google and Facebook are just starting to get interested in the possible consequences of algorithms. Facebook’s motto is “Move fast and break things”. This perspective applies to most of the tech world. However, they are now more careful about what algorithms can cause.

“It will look like 1984, but it won’t be a government that’s in charge, it’ll be a corporation, and corporations are even less answerable than governments. In 10 or 20 years time, if Google is not broken up into separate parts, I will be severely worried for the future of democracy.”
-Toby Walsh – Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of New South Wales


Are robot-humans impossible?

We are still far from a stage where the distinction between human and artificial intelligence will become unpredictable. A study was conducted to replicate a microscopic threadworm brain. Although this worm had only 200 neurons in its brain, it was not successful. The latest technology we have(2021) of artificial intelligence, is almost impossible for us to replicate the brains of more complex animals, while we cannot even copy the brain of a microscopic worm.

Do they bring us good or harm?

If we look at the overall dimension, algorithms still make our lives easier than creating problems. However, we must be careful and proceed calmly, without moving quickly or breaking things.

“I see the positive outcomes outweighing the negative, but the issue will be that certain people will suffer negative consequences, perhaps very serious, and society will have to decide how to deal with these outcomes. These outcomes will probably differ in character, and in our ability to understand why they happened, and this reality will make some people fearful. But as we see today, people feel that they must use the internet to be a part of society. Even if they are fearful of the consequences, people will accept that they must live with the outcomes of these algorithms, even though they are fearful of the risks.”
– David Clark – Research Scientist at MIT

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