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The Art of Algorithms

March 10, 2017

The memory is a bit blurry, but I think I started with computer science at the age of 13 or 14 when some of my friends got their first computers. In the afternoons, we would meet at their places to play games, write code and explore these cool machines. I purchased my first programmable calculator when I was 15 years old (It had 420 bytes of memory) and programmed my first neural network when I was 19 (on an Atari 1040). I have since seen many different aspects of computer science. Only recently, when I designed the Blueberry4 computer, did I fully appreciate that algorithms are, most fundamentally, the art of translating really complex problems into simple additions of 1's and 0's. 

 

This is true whether we program an autonomous vehicle control system, an artificial intelligence, a chess program, ... anything. We normally don't see this because modern computers are black boxes and because we re-use lower-level algorithms which have been written by others. We call these drivers, libraries and frameworks. Often we don't even realise that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Ultimately, the computer resolves all algorithms, layer by layer, into simple additions of 1's and 0's (helped by storing and retrieving data). 

 

This is the foundation of computer science. Writing widgets, apps, games, animations, databases, etc, often seem like disconnected activities to us, the teachers, and especially to the students. The underlying algorithms sometimes appear useless, without purpose and artificial. But if we can convey the bigger picture that is at the heart of all our computer science efforts, namely the great reductionism of complex real-world stuff into simple additions of 1's and 0's, then we have found a common theme that spans all computer science education. 

 

If we are prepared, then this realisation can influence our very understanding of the world and the wonders of mathematics, biology, physics, chemistry and philosophy. It can encourage students to contemplate this very universe we live in and think about the great questions of life. And it all starts with 1+1.

 

 

 

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