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From eating dinner to watching Netflix – there’s a lot of math involved

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Algorithms are in everything we do and are impossible to avoid, meaning mathematics is everywhere. Put simply, algorithms are a series of instructions that are followed to solve a problem or reach a conclusion and can be as basic as cleaning your teeth or driving to work.

There are always ways to improve an algorithm whether that be a secret ingredient or shortcut. 

One user on Quora said: “One of my favourite examples that could also be described as an algorithm (from Coursera) would be the way in which people use airplane restrooms.

“This is an example of a fully bracketed, mutual exclusion lock principle where only one person is allowed to enter into the restroom and anyone else who needs to use it has to wait their turn in their seats.

“People going in turn the lock and a red light shows that the facilities are occupied. Only when the person who entered, exits after doing his business can any other person enter. Once he/she does, the same protocol is followed again.”

Algorithms are used as specifics for calculations, data processes and automated reasoning. 

For example, learning to cook, and this algorithm, as pointed out by a Quora user, is one we are all guilty of:  “I should cook more!” > buy ingredients > put some in a pan > cook > does it taste good? > no/kind of > put leftovers in fridge > order pizza > put leftover pizza in fridge > throw away leftovers > throw away cooking ingredients > months pass.”

This process repeats itself and that, believe it or not, is an algorithm.

Another everyday example is when we browse on Netflix. The more we watch a certain genre of movie or television show, the more likely we are to be recommended something similar. 

Data is constantly collected to inform and refresh the behind the scenes algorithm. 

We spoke to Dr Tom Crawford, a mathematician at the University of Oxford, who said: “In today’s world, it is almost impossible to avoid algorithms. Take any streaming service ‑ the next TV show you watch or new artist you listen to will most likely come from a list of suggestions, which is formulated by an algorithm.

“Using the internet  search engines organise results according to a ranking of what you’re most likely to be interested in, and online adverts try to figure out what you might want to buy based on your browsing history. 

“Data on your tastes and preferences across almost every digital aspect of life are used as an input, and then following a series of rules, an output is generated.

“The Netflix algorithm works out recommendations based on what you’ve watched already

“These rules could be answers to predetermined questions such as ‘does this person like dance music?’ or ‘does this person exercise often?’, with each answer leading to a different set of possible suggestions.”

Talking of the pros and cons of these everyday algorithms, Tom said: “The more data available about you, the more questions that can be answered and the better job the algorithm will do at providing a suggestion that you will enjoy.

“The good news is you get to watch TV shows you enjoy, listen to music you love, and buy products that you want. But, the bad news is that individuals can become stereotypes and you can become trapped in an ‘echo-chamber’ lacking any sort of variety or difference in opinion.

“Given just how ingrained algorithms are in today’s society, love them or loathe them, they are very much here to stay.”

So next time you are carrying out a day-to-day task, remember there will always be mathematics involved. 

Algorithms can be seen as an annoyance but are a great way of figuring out what film to watch. Whether you are for or against them, you cannot avoid them. 

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