Thursday, February 26, 2009

Fighting over shiny toys

A recent article in the Guardian extols the wonder of The Algorithm:
And since computers are increasingly dominant in our lives, algorithms are increasingly important - and nowhere is this more apparent than on the internet. In the online world, mathematical analysis isn't just important: the algorithm is king. Everywhere you turn online, companies are using algorithms in their quest for success. From Google's search results and Apple's music recommendations to Amazon telling you that "customers who bought this item also bought ... " algorithms are at work.

The article itself is pretty tame, a kind of knurd version of Bernard's article. What's funny is that the last line in the article, 'Mathematicians rule' got some people into a tizzy.

Two letters appeared in the Guardian following this article:
Bobbie Johnson (Go figure ..., 23 February) highlights the ever-increasing role the mathematics of algorithms plays in our daily lives, including Google's page ranking. "Mathematicians rule!" concludes Johnson. So a reader inspired by your article may seek to contact an expert in algorithms in the mathematics department of their local university. In this, the article will have misled them, as expertise in this area is to be found predominantly in departments of computer science and informatics.

Bobbie Johnson describes algorithms as "jealously guarded mathematical recipes that increasingly dictate how we lead our lives". What he's actually describing is operational research - the discipline of applying appropriate, often advanced, analytical methods to help make better decisions. Executives in every kind of organisation - from two-person start-ups to FTSE 100 leaders - are using OR to structure their problems, unlock the value of their data, model complex problems and make better decisions with less risk and better outcomes.

Of course, the first letter comes from the faculty of the CS department at Edinburgh, and the second from a member of the Operations Research Society. I wait for all the data mining and machine learning enthusiasts to start complaining next.

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