Algorithms have been around long before the invention of the computer. Today computers are everywhere, and so are algorithms. If you observe your surroundings, you could probably find several algorithms in place that help you solve many of the day-to-day issues and reach decisions affecting various aspects of the daily world. Multiple systems are powered by algorithms, from GPS to social media communication to various app recommendation systems. Algorithms, although seemingly complex, are nothing more than elaborate sets of instructions that computers follow to produce results.1

What is an Algorithm?

Although computer algorithms can seem complicated, the fundamental idea is simple enough for adults and children to understand. Algorithms can be defined as discrete steps with step-by-step instructions written out.

An algorithm is a procedure or set of guidelines that must be followed to finish a specific task. Almost all tasks follow a particular algorithm, from organizing your desk to creating your own game design. Using algorithms, you break a task up into smaller parts which will make the task simpler to complete.2

Every action you take involves an algorithm.3 Algorithms are fundamental to computational thinking and problem-solving in many facets of life as people use them to accurately and effectively complete tasks.

Real-World Examples of Algorithms

Algorithms are employed every day, whether in sites like Google that aren’t surprising or in manual activities like doing your homework that are more unexpected. 3, 4

Algorithms may be necessary to perform the simplest tasks, such as searching on Google. Imagine that you are interested in learning whether a dog can swim. Even without all the words in the query, such as “can a dog swim?” try Googling for just the terms “swimming dog,” for instance, and see the results. You’ll discover that the output or the results quickly display results of dogs swimming, followed by more information. These responses are produced by Google using an algorithm; therefore, the complete query is not necessary.

2. Cooking Recipes

As with sorting papers and tying shoes, following a recipe involves replicating the result, which is a type of algorithm. To complete a recipe, you must follow a set of steps. Let’s say you are baking a cake. The basic ingredients are flour, yeast, and water. Once you have all of your ingredients, you must put them together in a specific way that will result in a predictable result, in this case, the cake of your choice.

3. Facial Recognition

We run into familiar faces daily, whether a loved one, a coworker, or even a curious neighbor. We use the information on the size and placement of a person’s facial features that we’ve previously gathered when we recognize someone’s face. The internal analysis of that data allows for the automatic identification of others. Computer algorithms can automate this process, but since facial recognition is based on human design, there is much more  to be done to improve accuracy.

4. Traffic Signals

Traffic signal software considers traffic flow in real time and organizes standard sets of movements into phases. For example, moving through a lane and turning right would be combined into one phase. A clever algorithm that recognizes the phases and accurately times the movement is required for traffic lights to maintain safety. The traffic signal cycles through its phases each time you approach a red light. An algorithm is used to decide when you should proceed based on the amount of traffic.