A history in Internet - Algorithms (Part I)

By Fion

Hi. I’m Fion, and I’m an Intern at Digital Way Academy. I’m actually a graduate in Accounting, and had never once considered myself as a ‘tech-savvy’ kinda gal. But follow me on a journey to discover more on the history of technology, the internet, video games and all things digital!

Algorithms Who?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Up till recently, algorithms were common terms and only within the domain of Data Scientists. But as of the introduction of most things in general, especially Social Media, Algorithms are more in our lives than we think they were.
Google defines Algorithm as “a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.” In layman terms for the common folks like you and I, the term “Algorithm” basically means a set of well-defined sequences or numbers to perform something.
Allow me to illustrate it for you. Ever thought to yourself how Netflix always knows what shows you would like to watch? 
Well the answer to that is known as an Algorithm, or in this case, “Netflix’s Recommendation System”. Netflix keeps track of your likes and dislikes to recommend future shows for you to watch. As explained in their website, their system is created with a proprietary computer that creates their complex recommendations system
Your interactions with Netflix’s website or Phone App, such as viewing titles, types of show you’ve watched, what time of day you usually binge your series, or even how long you’ve watched an episode of Suits are taken in as data. These data are then imputed into their “complex recommendations system” to be computed into Algorithms.
This helps Netflix decide what type of shows and titles should be decorating your Netflix Homepage.

The Origins

The algorithm was actually commonly used during the 1950s when the first batch of computers was commercially available. However, the first recorded usage of the algorithm dated back from Ancient GreeceBoth Eratosthenes and  Nicomachus paved the way of mathematical problem solving in today’s time.
Eratosthenes introduced a simple algorithm for finding prime numbers in a 100s chart, also known as the Sieve of Eratosthenes. And Nicomachus introduced the Squared triangular number; an algorithm for identifying the greatest common divisor of two numbers. However, it was Euclid that paved the way for future Data Scientists in understanding how Algorithms can be taken into the next level, and be used for computation.

Euclidean Algorithm and the Enchantress of Numbers

Photo by hienh.github.io on GitHub
Wikipedia defines the Euclidean Algorithm (Euclid’s algorithm) as an efficient method to compute the Greatest Common Divisor of two numbers, the largest number that divides them both without a remainder. To be frank, I’m not much of a math expert. That explanation technically flew over my head. So I’ll do us a favor by explaining this in a more easier way. 
First, we have to understand what ‘Greatest Common Divisor’ (GCD) actually means. Basically, it just means that if we have 2 numbers, the largest number that divides them both is known as a GCD. For example, the GCD between the number 30 and 25, is the number 5. Since large numbers are difficult to count by hand, the Euclidean Algorithm could be used.
The Euclidean Algorithm recognises that a GCD can be calculated “two at a time”. Taking our previous example, if 5 is the GCD of 30 and also the GCD of 25, it can also mean that the GCD of 30 subtracted by 25 is also 5. So that means that, if the numbers are both larger, we can attain an algorithm by repeating the same process over and over.

Ada Lovelace came to be known as the First ‘Computer Programmer’(despite literally living during a century before the invention of  Computers). She was introduced to Charles Babbage, also known as The Father of the Computer and became close colleagues.

Ada became interested in one of Charles’s designs, also known
as the Analytical Engine. And in 1843, Babbage asked Lovelace to translate a description of his engine, which was Italian, and the rest was history.

What she had done was beyond what she was asked to. She made her own notes and realised that the existing computation was more than meets the eye. She basically wrote a program to calculate complicated numbers, also known as the Bernoulli numbers.

Essentially, she created the first Computer Algorithm and speculated that it could be used beyond just numbers, and could be used for anything within a fixed set of rules. Basically, what we use in computers of today. Although it was unfortunate, the machine she had built the program for was never built, her work was republished 101 years later, when the world was finally building the ‘Computers’ she had envisioned.

How the Algorithm of the Internet Affects Our Lives

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash
So I’ve explained algorithms, and I’ve explained how it is used generally. The computation of an algorithm is made with the same ingredients; set of numbers, set of rules, and the correct recipe. As long as we follow this law, we will attain the same sequence, and eventually build an Algorithm. Let’s go back to the initial example of Netflix. Netflix is ‘Binge-watching’ worthy because it builds their catalogue differently for each viewer. Obviously, Netflix has a tons of shows and titles, how do they always seem to know what you might like? 
The answer is simple. Algorithms.
They consider your age, your preferences, the country you’re from, and many other data that they input in their ‘Machine Learning’ Algorithm. Eventually, this data space of ‘rules’ and ‘numbers’ becomes what helps us human beings make our decisions. So, ever wonder why Netflix seems to know a very, very, very specific genre of shows you might like, you have the Algorithm to thank for.
But is that a good thing?
Jokes aside, the human population has always argued whether if Robots will eventually take over the world. Well, the same argument applies here. Experts would argue that the purpose of Algorithms is to “optimize efficiency and profitability without much thought about the possible societal impacts of the data modeling and analysis.” But if you consider the facts above, we’re literally letting ‘robots’ decide for us. And as data and predictive modeling becomes paramount, humanity and human judgement becomes less of a priority.
“Algorithms have the capability to shape individuals’ decisions without them even knowing it, giving those who have control of the algorithms an unfair position of power” – Lee Raine & Janna Anderson, February 8, 2017
It was during 2017 that YouTube was faced with a controversy. As stated by James Bridle, something’s wrong with the internet. Let’s be candid, the internet gives almost every access to everything, for you, for me… and for the kids of the 21st Century.
One of the spiciest topics that parents of today would ask themselves, ‘Would I be comfortable to give my children the same kind of access on the Internet of today’?
Internet influencers are playing a bigger part in influencing children in their day-to-day lives compared to celebrities. Celebrities have always been somewhat strict with their Public Relations, and control themselves in front of the masses.
This is purely because when they partake in any work, they’re tied to a company. Whereas Internet Influencers are pretty much having the Laissez-faire movement. As long as they get viewers and more engagement, they’re good to go. 
So how does that impact the Algorithms on the internet and how does it affect us?
The world is driven by Social Media. As Bailey Parnell pointed out, Social Media has impacted our mental health, our growth and how the society works as whole, whether with intention or not. As long as someone famous does something, the masses would follow.
It’s just how it works. When we take that into context, for example, the
‘Ice Bucket Challenge’, the more people search for it, the more clicks it gets, and the more it affects the Algorithm. So eventually, even if you’ve not known about it from the start, you’ll eventually fall into the trap. And then this creates something known as a “trend”
Putting this into the real world, this means that, the more people ‘click’ on something, or the longer someone watches a video uploaded on the internet, it affects the algorithm or the Robot behind it.
And thus the Robot or the AI would consider “Ah, people like this, so why not introduce it to other people.” So even if you didn’t know about Logan Paul, you’ll eventually see his recommended video in your Youtube feed.
So the next time you wonder to yourself how you’ve gotten an advertisement on Facebook for sales on shoes, it’s most likely your habits that Facebook’s algorithm is picking up….or your friends’.
Want to be part of the Digital Age and make the next Algorithmic System?
Join us! The Advanced Professional Graduate Program in Software Engineering with Digital Way Academy will equip you with the skills and knowledge in innovation on development in digital and software.
Digital Way Academy brings to you a series of “From the Industry, For the Industry” programs, together with our strategic partner UTMSPACE, School of Professional and Continuing Education, the private education arm of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM).

The author thanks Digital Way Academy for advice and assistance with this piece. Any errors and oversights are the author’s alone.

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