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An algorithm is a fancy name for a set of instructions to perform a task. The task can be as simple as adding numbers or playing a video clip.
Algorithms are commonly discussed in terms of computer programming, where the algorithm is the specific coding sequence that tells the computer to accomplish a given task. However, algorithm can refer to any step-by-step process that must be followed exactly in order to accomplish a given goal. For instance, each recipe in a cookbook is an algorithm, because it tells you the exact steps you must take to complete your task: cooking a (hopefully) delicious dinner.
Frequently Asked Questions
When does my computer use algorithms?
Everything you do on your computer is based on some sort of algorithm, and usually several algorithms working together. For instance, when you open your web browser, your computer must follow a series of programming instructions to display your web browser on your screen (algorithm 1). It then needs to follow another set of instructions to communicate with your modem (algorithm 2). Once it has located your network, it needs to contact your Internet Service Provider, following yet another set of specific instructions (algorithm 3). Then it reaches out to the server that hosts your browser’s homepage (algorithm 4) and asks for the latest content (algorithm 5), which it then downloads to your computer and displays on your screen…even more algorithms!
Can’t there be just one big algorithm for Open a Webpage?
Computers break complex tasks into series of algorithms, the same we do when trying to accomplish tasks in our daily lives. Remember that cookbook? If you’re hosting a dinner party, you probably need to use several recipes, each of which is its own algorithm. By breaking the process into smaller tasks, you can more easily adjust if something changes. For instance, if you run out of butter, you won’t be able to make the cookie recipe you planned, and you might have to substitute homemade ice cream. No problem, just flip to a different page in the desert section. If, however, you only had one long recipe that included instructions for the appetizer, main course, and desert, you’d be in trouble!
What do I need to know about algorithms?
Unless you’re a computer programmer, probably not much. Just know that without them, your computer, tablet, or cell phone wouldn’t be very useful. Understanding that your computer needs to follow specific steps in order to accomplish a task can be helpful in troubleshooting. For instance, if your web browser won’t connect to your homepage, you can retrace each step in the process to try and determine where the problem might be.