The modern use of algorithms to predict human behaviour feels sinister, but they are older and more human than we might imagine
Local councils, we learned this week, are now using “algorithms” to try to predict which children might be at risk. In popular rhetoric, algorithms are scary artificial intelligence mini-brains, the newfangled way to say that computers will take over the world. But what exactly are they?
The word sounds hi-tech, but in fact it’s very old: imported into English, via French and Latin, from the name of the ninth-century Arab mathematician al-Khwarizmi. Originally algorithm simply meant what is now called the “Arabic” system of numbers (including zero). Only later did it acquire the more specific sense in mathematics of a procedure or set of rules: a writer in 1811 called for an algorithm for establishing theorems.