Algorithms: Useful but imperfect

If I need to explain algorithms to an 8-year-old child, I would like to use how he or she gets his or her sandwich in the Subway as an example. To be specific, I would tell him or her that every time you go to the Subway, the process of your ordering is an algorithm. You will choose the bread and its size you want at first, and then choose the meat and vegetables, finally you will choose the sauce, by following these steps which are designed in advance, you will get your own particular Subway sandwich from “infinite” choice. Algorithms just like guidebooks, you follow those predesigned steps to close to your goal and finally you will achieve it.


In my perspective, the most important part that algorithms have been affecting me is absolutely daily navigation. I am not the person who always lost his or her way, but no matter when I was in Beijing or now in Gainesville, I would like Apps like Baidu map or Google map to navigate me to my destination. Because based on the algorithms these Apps use, I can always avoid traffic jams and arrive at my destination in the shortest time. What’s more, sometimes when I don’t drive my car and do not in a hurry. I would always choose “less walking” mode (how lazy I am) , thus these Apps will use algorithms to redesign a route for me even if it will cost more time to arrive at the destination. Even though algorithms of navigation have already brought me so much convenience, I have to say they sometimes don’t make a perfect prediction about how long will I use. While because I am accustomed to rely on these Apps and trust them, sometimes I will arrive in advance (that’s fine), while sometimes I will be late for some significant appointments.


As for Crawford’s article, among the ten “scenes” he talked about that can affect our real life, I have to say “scenes” No.2 resonates me most, because online shopping is actually a significant part of my life. During my experience of using shopping websites, on the one hand, algorithms of these websites help me a lot. When I arrived in Gainesville in June, I had no bed in my own room, so I decided to buy one on Amazon. After I chose a bed, Amazon recommended products that customers frequently bought together, so I saved lots of time to find a mattress. While on the other hand, because this function is based on the algorithm for every customer of Amazon, which means the recommended products sometimes don’t suitable a certain person for every time, even if the algorithm had been optimized for him or her. Go on with my experience of bed and mattress I referred above, when I finally got them, I thought I would have a good sleep that night, while I found the mattress is too soft for me, maybe it is comfortable for all customers except me. This makes never use this function any more till now, for I realize that I know who I am and what I like than algorithms do.


6 thoughts on “Algorithms: Useful but imperfect

  1. Hi Lin’ao,
    When you mentioned that sometimes you will be late for some significant appointments due to the map navigation, I felt the same with you. I always think about whether we rely too heavily on navigation which is a display of algorithms. That is to say, we give algorithms the right to affect our daily life. Sometimes I plan to go to an ATM to get some money so I use Baidu maps. Sometimes its algorithms have some error and guided me a wrong way. I felt that it was not the right way for me but I just kept on walking according its guidance because it is a habit for me to use it, to trust it. However, this habit did affect my life and waste my time. It let me afraid of algorithms because of my reliance. However, I think we cannot get rid of it.


  2. One problem I’ve found with Google Maps is that I can’t figure out directions without them. We’ve mentioned that algorithms have made our lives easier but also made us lazier. I’ve found that true with Google Maps more than anything else because I think the app affects my brain chemistry. When I don’t use Google Maps, I’ve gotten lost on drives I’ve done many times before. My brain goes on autopilot when I’m using the app and I don’t process anything about where I’m going.

    I’ve learned that your sense of direction comes from a part of the brain called the hippocampus, and you can improve it just by studying maps and learning orientation. So now if I have time to spare, I try to get to places without using directions from Google Maps (I even have a map of Gainesville I keep with me) to see if I can try to improve the “sense of direction” algorithm in my head.


  3. Hi Lin’Ao,
    Besides you make me hungry, your description of algorithms is interesting. I haven’t thought of the Subway processes to get a sandwich as based on the concept if algorithms. I would like to add to the downside of algorithms in navigation systems that by the time we become so dependent on them not on our brain to visualize the route. Also, we might find ourselves in trouble when our phone’ battery died, and we do not know how to get to our destination. You also made an important point in your last paragraph after you described your experience with Amazon. Although algorithms made it possible for Amazon’ shoppers to get suggestions for products that are “frequently bought together,” they might not be the proper fit for our preferences. Moreover, although this feature had helped me last month as I described in my post, I think I’ll be more careful when making a decision based on others’ preferences.


  4. The point you made about the map applications on our phone is something I never really thought about but it’s so true. I rely on my maps so much that I don’t even think about the possibility of there being alternate routes that the apps don’t show us. My dad barely uses the maps on his phone because he seems to find faster, better shortcuts that the phone doesn’t ever show us. It makes me think about how these routes are chosen and if they are the best for us or not. It is interesting how we put all of our faith in the phone’s ability to tell us where to go, so much so that we don’t even realize that half of the time we can get there on our own.


  5. Good explanation of an algorithm. Using Google Maps and similar for personal navigation is a great example of algorithms in everyday life — so different from using a printed map to find your way! Crawford scene 2: Okay. Did you see Osama also bought a mattress recommended by Amazon?


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