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Archive for October, 2013|Monthly archive page

The Curious Case of Algorithms

In Education, Interdisciplinary Science, Mathematics on October 31, 2013 at 2:40 PM

I finished reading “The Golden Ticket: P, NP and The Search for The Impossible” some time back. It is a very nice book that introduces one to complexity theory. Essentially, it describes, without too much of Mathematics, what kinds of problems can be solved and what other kinds will take forever to solve. However, if these – the forever to solve ones– were to get solved one day, what would be the impact. P  refers to the problems that can be solved quickly using computers to get the best solution. On the other hand NP refers to problems whose best solution cannot be found quickly using computers. I have deliberately simplified things for your understanding. This field is vastly complex!

The word “quickly” is used here with reference to a time span which is acceptable to the seeker of the solution. It could be a few seconds, or a few weeks.  Going by the nature of humans, any solution (best or otherwise) that might be delivered in months or years will probably be unacceptable. The search of any solution is accomplished using algorithms. It is these algorithms that can either give us a solution “quickly” or might take ages to finish their task. It is believed that if we could find algorithms that could solve any problem in the class of NP problemswe could solve many challenges facing us. These problems can be found in varied fields like biology, cancer research, mathematics, computer science, economics etc. However, some of the modern day systems which we feel very secure and safe about will lose these strengths if an NP problem is solved. This is because they rely on the fact that NP problems are extremely hard to solve quickly. For instance, your secure online bank transaction won’t be secure anymore. The public-key cryptography, on which it relies, would be broken by then.

Another technologically interesting aspect of algorithms is their ability to provide information based on someone’s taste in color, clothes, books, music etc. In fact, it is this type of algorithms which is used by eBay, Amazon etc. to recommend to users items for purchase. They track their actions: which items they click on, which items they buy etc. to create an “algorithmic profile” of users. While all this sounds interesting and potentially time saving for someone who knows what to buy, this also has a negative side effect. As a regular user of such platforms, you end up getting information that is tailored to your existing taste. Therefore, you cannot easily get information that is not relevant to your taste. Effectively, your ability to explore ( if you are also someone who likes to explore) becomes limited. Of course there are ways to overcome this, simplest of them being not to sign in when performing a search!! You can argue that many prefer automatic sign-ins to save time and the need to remember passwords. True, but then you have to decide whether you want to work/live like a frog in a well or like a whale exploring an ocean! 🙂

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