The Secret Rules of Modern Living: Algorithms

This documentary from the BBC uncovers the hidden world of algorithms, the formulae that secretly run modern society.

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Creative commons image RolandH under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. under Creative-Commons license QuickSort at work Our lives are touched by Algorithms every day. They are ubiquitous - yet most of us are unaware of their extraordinary impact on our everyday lives.

Algorithms control what we read, the products we buy, and with whom we socialise. They know when to stock supermarket shelves, can predict the weather, and create connections around the planet at the speed of light. Algorithms can guide a surgeons hand, build works of art, and even ignite the spark of love.

To make the point that algorithms are not a modern phenomenon, we’re looking into the historical example of Euclid’s Algorithm from two and half thousand years ago. It was used to work out common divisors in mathematical problems. A practical application is when tiling a floor you need to work out how many tiles you need to cover a surface.

Algorithms such as QuickSort, PageRank and Simplex enhance our capabilities because they make life easier and faster, they do the dirty, boring work for us. It is the brilliant minds behind the algorithms we ought to celebrate.

The first written algorithm was the creation of the Greek scholar Euclid but the modern godfather of algorithms could only be Alan Turing.

One area where algorithms have excelled and surpassed the human mind is in the world of streamlining and organising complex systems with huge amounts of data in the blink of an eye.

Clearly the real expansion in the use of algorithms has coincided with the computer age and the collation of big data. It’s the modern application of algorithms to solve problems that make up the majority of the programme. We focus in on the most interesting and surprising examples which represent different categories of algorithms. For example, the ground movement of aeroplanes at Heathrow airport is co-ordinated using a Scheduling algorithm. A kidney donor exchange scheme uses a Matching algorithm. There is a $1m prize offered by a mathematical society in the US for the best Routing algorithm called The Travelling Salesman Problem. Every big delivery company and sales team has their own solution to maximise efficiency – but which is the best? Marcus will explore how maths is being used to solve these real world problems and, in the case of the kidney donors, even making life and death decisions. 

As the co-producer of this informative documentary we've collated a range of articles and activities to let you take your knowledge further and tie in with the BBC's Make It Digital season. You can take your learning further by:

'The Secret Rules of Modern Living: Algorithms' airs on BBC Four on Thursday 24th September 2015 at 9.00PM. Full broadcast details and watch again links can be found on bbc.co.uk.

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More about the documentary

Copyrighted image Copyright: BBC The Secret Rules of Modern Living: Algorithms sees Professor Marcus du Sautoy, Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, look into the ultimate potential of algorithms and whether there is any capacity of the human mind that they can’t reproduce.

Algorithms control what we read, the products we buy, and with whom we socialise. They know when to stock supermarket shelves, can predict the weather, and create connections around the planet at the speed of light. Algorithms can guide a surgeons hand, build works of art, and even ignite the spark of love. Marcus lifts the lid on the largely unknown, unseen world of algorithms to reveal the vital roles they play in modern life.