Here's What An Algorithm Actually Is

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Welcome to What The Tech?!, Refinery29's weekly column explaining the basics behind a buzzword or concept you've heard tossed around in conversation (but maybe don't actually understand).

Your computer runs on algorithms. Your phone runs on algorithms. And your favorite apps rely on them, too.

An algorithm is really just a fancy-sounding word for something simple. It's a way to solve problem — specifically, a step-by-step way to solve a problem with code.

While apps and companies like to pride themselves on creating their own algorithms for solving complicated issues, such as artificial intelligence, algorithms can be incredibly simple. In fact, when you study computer science, you learn a variety of basic (and then increasingly complicated) algorithms.

Among the first types you learn about are sorting algorithms. How would you sort a batch of random numbers in order from least to greatest, for example? There are a variety of ways you could go about this, and there are pros and cons to each. You might come up with a solution that works in some cases, but not others — which means you need to come up with a better algorithm, or somehow take into account those edge cases that don't fit the mold. You may also find that some solutions are more efficient than others — that is, they can be done in fewer steps, and thus, less time.

Not all code makes up an algorithm. One line of code that tells Siri to show you today's weather data, for example, isn't an algorithm. But the entire chunk of code that understands what words you speak to Siri, that's an algorithm; and the chunk of code that then makes sense of what you just asked Siri, that's an algorithm, too.

Now, when you hear developers or articles talking about some game-changing algorithm, you'll know all they've done is come up with a new, better way to solve a problem with code.
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