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Algorithms to Live By

The Computer Science of Human Decisions

By Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths
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  • Contains 11 key ideas
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Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths

Algorithms to Live By (2016) is a practical and useful guide that shows how algorithms have much more to do with day-to-day life than you might think. And not just that; they can also lead to a better life by helping you solve problems, make decisions and get more things done.

Key idea 1 of 11

Algorithms help both humans and computers to solve problems.

If you’re someone who tries to stay abreast of today’s technology, you probably already know that computers use algorithms all the time to solve problems. But you may have asked yourself, “What exactly is an algorithm?”

The word actually dates back to the ninth century, when it was first used by the Persian mathematician Muhammad al-Khwarizmi. But the use of algorithms can be traced roughly four thousand years back, to the Sumerian civilization.

Simply put, an algorithm is a finite series of steps that help solve a problem – and it’s a technique we use all the time.

Even a recipe can be thought of as an algorithm: you follow a series of instructions to get the desired result, a delicious meal. The same can be said for the pattern you follow to knit a scarf or put together some Ikea furniture.

And when you’re putting together a list of pros and cons to decide whether or not to accept a job offer or to make a big decision, you’re also following what’s known as an intuitive algorithm.

By their very nature, the intuitive algorithms that humans use aren’t precise. We use them in times of uncertainty to make the best decision we can, like weighing the potential benefits against the risks of jumping into a new business investment.

Therefore, these intuitive algorithms may seem rather subjective and random compared to the mathematical algorithms a computer uses, though they basically provide the same solution.

Take the unpleasant task of apartment hunting. Most people go into this process with a set of criteria in mind: a minimum amount of space, a certain distance from school or work, a maximum amount of rent. When these conditions are met, that’s when you take the next step and sign the lease.

This is essentially the same method that computer algorithms use, and in the next blinks we’ll explore how these methods can work for you.

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