The real ghost in the machine

Martin Erwig introduces the algorithm, the sets of instructions that decide how we live

The World Today Published 28 September 2017 Updated 23 November 2020 3 minute READ

Martin Erwig

Professor of Computer Science, Oregon State University and author of the book ‘Once Upon an Algorithm: How Stories Explain Computing’

Algorithms are everywhere, and they affect everyone. As well as the obvious places − computers, smart phones, cars and appliances − they also occur outside of machines. A recipe is an example of such a machine-transcending algorithm. So are pieces of music, evacuation plans, the instructions on how to assemble furniture, card tricks and many other activities. If general interest in science and technology is not a sufficient reason to learn about them, maybe their omnipresence will persuade you.

Some may think that algorithms are complicated and only for the initiated few, an impression reinforced by stereotypes that plague computer science in the public imagination − think of Dennis from Jurassic Park or the Warlock from Die Hard 4. In films like these, computer science is a black art performed by nerdy guys. While this picture may contain an element of truth, it gives the false impression that computing is only for nerds and nothing could be further from the truth.

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