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My boss keeps saying he wants an algorithm. Is it soup or a sandwich?

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Dear Uncle Bert and Aunty Gert

I'm a young intern with a political party. I'm a woman and my boss is a man. Honestly, I'm a bit confused by some of the language used and I'm not sure if some of it is innuendo.

Recently, my boss has taken to demanding that I give him an algorithm. I don't know if he means he wants me to pick up his lunch, find an esoteric document or to get under the desk and try not to bang my head.

Can you help me?

Out to Lunch

Bert says :

Dear Out to Lunch

What an invidious position to put you in. It seems that it's your boss' lack of education in matters relating to tech that's causing the problem. Sounds as if he's one slurp short of a bowl of soup. So let me help a bit.

He's probably been hearing about artificial intelligence. That's something that computer people like to pretend exists but it doesn't really. What computer people call artificial intelligence is simply a series of instructions given to a computer with a second set that tells it what to do after the first. There's a particular type of instruction set that's called an algorithm but actually the term "algorithm" has nothing to do with computers, except that computers are given one or more of them as part of their instruction set.

Let me explain: Computers are dumb: they can only do what people tell them to do. When you hear of a computer going off and doing things on its own, that's only possible because a human failed to properly define the parameters of its capability. So, it's like telling you to go out to pick up lunch but not telling you where to go, how much to spend or what to buy. You have an objective but no guidance. Like you, computers need guidance, in the form of instruction sets. Instruction sets are a series of statements that tell you what to do, one after the other, until the task is completed.

If your boss said "Collect five pounds from petty cash, go to the sandwich shop on the corner of A and B Streets and get me a toasted cheddar cheese and ham sandwich on white bread, then bring it back and put it on my desk and put the receipt and change in the petty cash box" that's a complete set of instructions. There is no discretion, no room for you to think beyond the instructions. That's what simple computer instructions are like. "Do this, then that and when you've finished do nothing except wait for the next instruction."

Things become more complicated when you, or the computer, is given discretion. So if your boss had said to you "take some money from petty cash, go and buy me a sandwich, then put on my desk and put the change and the receipt in petty cash," there are decisions to be made. If you are going to make those decisions, you need to have information to base those decisions on. Does your boss like toasted or untoasted sandwiches, does he like sliced bread or a panini, does he like cheese or ham or neither or both, does he have a favourite shop? Of course, you don't want to have to ask him for that information so you ask someone else: in short, you search for and gather "data" which you will then process in order to give effect to the instruction.

That's an algorithm. You've seen algorithms all over the place - a flow-chart is a pictorial representation of an algorithm. It demonstrates what is sometimes called "a decision tree." It represents this: "if, yes, then do this, if no, then do that, then ask the next question."

That's all it is. All the complexity that so-called AI people talk about comes down to this: if my boss wants sliced white bread, order that, if he doesn't, does he like panini? If so, order that, if not, does he like hand-cut thick-slices of multi-grain bread? If so, order it, if not, does he like..... ? And you just keep going until you get to a "yes," then move onto the next question and, when all the questions have been answered, you move onto the next instruction set. "does he like it toasted? If yes, order it, if no, order untoasted." Each of the stages is reduced to a simple routine, and you progress through the routines one after the other until you put the change and the receipt into petty cash and take back and destroy the "iou" issued when you took the money.

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