It’s a little tricky to define an algorithm, but informally we can use the term interchangeably with more well-known English words like **recipe** or **procedure.**

**Definition:** an **algorithm** is a finite sequence of unambiguous and effectively computable instructions that produce some intended result.

Let’s explore some of those terms in more detail:

- finite:
- An algorithm must
**terminate**at some point. If it might go on forever, then we might never achieve the intended result. - sequence:
- The instructions are
**ordered**– first do this, then do that, etc. – and the order must be followed to achieve the correct result. (As an aside, there are*parallel*algorithms, in which the instructions are only*partially*ordered. We’ll ignore that distinction for now.) - unambiguous:
- Each instruction must be specified
**precisely,**so there can be no confusion as to what must be done. If multiple interpretations of the instruction are possible, it’s not an algorithm. - computable:
- Each instruction must specify some task that
**can be performed.**This gets a little theoretical, but there are some types of problems that no computer can solve in finite time. For now, let’s just take a simple example of an uncomputable instruction: “predict tonight’s lottery numbers.” Because the lottery is random, there’s no procedure we can follow to reliably predict it. - result:
- We develop an algorithm to produce some specific
**answer.**It could be a solution to a math problem, a stream of output, a modification of values stored in the memory, or whatever.

![@hmason on Twitter](hmason-code.png)

An algorithm is independent of the language or notation in which it is specified. The **binary search** algorithm can be written in Python or Java or Ruby, but they’re all the same algorithm.

One notation sometimes used for algorithms is called **pseudo-code** (where **pseudo** of course means “false” or “fake”). Unlike real code in a programming language, pseudo-code cannot be executed directly by a computer. However, because it’s based on English (with a little mathematical notation), it’s easier for untrained humans to understand.

Below is an example of an algorithm, written in pseudo-code, that will compute the **factorial** of a given integer, **N.** (The factorial is the result of multiplying all the numbers between 1 and N, so factorial of 4 is 1×2×3×4 = 24.)

**Algorithm:** factorial

- Let N be an integer > 0.
- Let K be 1.
- If N = 1 then output K and stop.
- Set K to K×N.
- Set N to N–1.
- Go back to step 3.

To understand this algorithm, we need to introduce the concept of a **variable** in programming. We use variables in mathematics too, but they’re a little different. In mathematics, a variable is a name given to a value, like *x=5.* In programming, a variable is a name given to a **location in memory,** which in turn can hold a value. The difference is that the value in the memory can be **updated** at a later time.

Let’s trace the algorithm. In step 1, we’re allowed to specify the value of **N,** as long as it is bigger than zero. This is a kind of **input** instruction. Let’s use 4, so that the algorithm computes the factorial of 4. In step 2, another variable **K** is named, but it’s initial value is 1. Here’s what that looks like:

Step 3 asks whether N=1. It does not, so we **skip** the rest of that instruction.

Step 4 updates a variable. We first compute the value of the expression: K×N = 1×4 = 4, and then we write that value to the box labeled K, replacing whatever was there before:

Step 5 updates the other variable. We first compute the value of the expression: N–1 = 4–1 = 3, and then we write that result to the box labeled N, replacing whatever was there before:

Step 6 says to go back to step 3. In step 3, N is still not 1, so we continue with the two updates again. This time, K×N = 4×3 = 12, and N–1 = 3–1 = 2:

N is still not 1, so we go through once more, producing these values for the two variables:

This time N=1, so in step 3 we output K and stop. By following this algorithm, we just computed the factorial of 4:

` Output: 24`

By starting the same algorithm with a different value of N, we could have computed any factorial.

Here’s an algorithm you can try tracing yourself.

**Algorithm:**

- Let A,B be integers > 0.
- If A = B then output A and stop.
- If A < B then set B to B–A and go back to step 2.
- Otherwise set A to A–B and go back to step 2.

I won’t tell you what this algorithm produces, but try it starting with these values for A and B:

```
A: 35
B: 21
```

Then try these:

```
A: 28
B: 12
```

And finally these:

```
A: 14
B: 33
```

Do you see the pattern? What does the algorithm compute?

One rich area of algorithms is **sorting** – putting things in some order, whether that’s alphabetical, numerical, chronological, or by size. There are many different sorting algorithms with different strengths and weaknesses. These videos introduce a few of them.

See also:

Whenever we talk about the “speed” of an algorithm, we have to consider the **size of the input.** In fact, we’re usually most concerned about how the size of the input *impacts* the running time, as that size *increases.* Maybe for sorting 8 elements, there isn’t much difference. But when we increase that to 50 or 1,000, dramatic differences may emerge.

Below is a graph comparing the number of comparisons for selection vs. merge sort, and also showing the lines N² and N·log₂(N), which are characterizations of these different approaches. You can see that the selection sort is somewhat less than N², however, they do grow large in the same awful way.