Liuming Chen’s 750-Word Expanded Definition of Algorithm

TO: Prof. Jason Ellis

FROM: Liuming Chen

Date: 10/15/2019

SUBJECT: Expanded Definition of Algorithm


The intention of this document is to explain a term that’s frequently being used in the professional field, especially in IT. The term is “algorithm”. It is not a word that’s only being used by professionals. It appears in the news and social media increasingly in recent years. This document will discuss the definitions of the term “algorithm”, talk about some of the context that the term is being used, and provide a working definition for it.


This term was originally borrowed from Latin. The etymon is algorithmus in Medieval Latin. There are three definitions provided by the Oxford English Dictionary for this term, and which we are going to discuss in the following.

The first definition defines algorithm as, “The Arabic system of numbering, characterized by a zero (cf. algorism n. 1; now rare). Formerly also: †calculus (obsolete).” (“algorithm”, 2019). The term algorithm derived from algorism in Middle English and algorism is derived from algorithmus, which is the etymon that we just mentioned. Algorism has the same definition as algorithm. From the Journal of Account Research, Williard Stone explains, “Algorism, the science of calculating by nine figures and zero”. (Stone, 1972, p.347). Algorithm is just another name for the Arabic numerals that the world uses nowadays, but we don’t call it algorism or algorithm anymore.

The second definition is related to Mathematics and Computing, “A procedure or set of rules used in calculation and problem-solving; (in later use spec.) a precisely defined set of mathematical or logical operations for the performance of a particular task.” (“algorithm”, 2019). Algorithms in Mathematics and Computing are being used to calculate something. Something can be anything in this case. If one wants to sort a list of data for readability, a sorting algorithm can be implemented to sort the data. The sorting algorithm will take the data from the user as input, process the data step by step and return a sorted list of data. Usually in IT, engineers and programmers pursue the most effectiveness and efficient algorithm that uses less computer power and faster computation time.

The third definition is related to Medicine, “A step-by-step protocol used to reach a clinical diagnosis or decision.” (“algorithm”, 2019). This is almost identical to algorithm in mathematics and computer. Both algorithms are approaches to result a solution for a problem. In the medical field, result of a medical algorithm can be a confirmed diagnosis, a treatment, or a prescription, etc.


This section will discuss some contexts that the term “algorithm” is being used, and how does the term mean differently in these contexts.

In the article “Algorithm for architectural origami”, Jamie Paik talk about an algorithm in architecture, “Overvelde et al. report an algorithm that allows the rational design of reconfigurable prismatic architected materials and determines their modes of deformation.” (Paik, 2017, p.296-297). In this context, the term algorithm can be interpreted as a solution to an architectural problem.

This context is quoted from a journal article in the military field. Discussing the genetic algorithm in Weapon-Target Allocation Problem by Wang et al., “Compared with air defense interception, ground targets are diverse and suitable for many weaponry types, so the scale and complexity of the WTA problem are greater, requiring the use of more efficient algorithms.”(Wang et al., 2019). The “algorithm” that was mentioned in the quote is a type of algorithms in computational mathematics call a genetic algorithm. It was inspired by evolutionary biology. The algorithm will have an enormous amount of candidate solutions that may take over a trillion years to find the best solution if the algorithm search solutions one by one. The genetic algorithm is designed to find the near-perfect solution by evolving the solution candidate. Time is massively reduced because the algorithm eliminates a lot of solution, just like biological evolution eliminated a countless amount of extinct species that didn’t adapt the nature. In this case, the algorithm is being used for finding the most optimal way of allocating ground targets.

In an antidepressant management paper, Adam et al. describe an algorithm as following, “A treatment algorithm was developed that enables clinically supervised, nonphysician depression care managers (DCMs) to track and monitor antidepressant tolerability and treatment response while supporting nonpsychiatric prescribers with antidepressant choice and dosing.” (Adam et al., 2012, p.647). This is a medical algorithm that was mention in the definition section. In this paper, the algorithm is used for antidepressant treatment and prescription.

Posted by a famous YouTube technology channel content creator, Austin Evans on Twitter, “I almost forgot what day it is thanks YouTube algorithm (With a screenshot of September by Earth, Wind & Fire music video)” (austinnotduncan, 2019). The YouTube algorithm that Austin talked about is a server process of YouTube that tracked user activities. Then it uses the activity data of users to guess, or compute users’ interests and recommend videos that the user might like to watch. The algorithm learned Austin’s interests and recommended the music video of September because it knows Austin would like to watch it on that day.

Working Definition

In conclusion, the term algorithm is a set of procedures that can be performed step by step to result a solution to a problem. It is like a cooking recipe. Following the recipe step by step will cook a delicious dish. The term algorithm is being used more often in the IT field in the past half-century. Algorithms in IT are different types of procedures that are being written by programmers or engineers and will be performed by the computer. It can be mathematical calculations or logical operations. It’s usually effectiveness and efficient. Different algorithm meets different needs. Just like people love a particular dish, and they will need that specific recipe to cook their favorite dish.


Adams, J. L., Gaynes, B. N., McGuinness, T., Modi, R., Willig, J., & Pence, B. W. (2012). Treating Depression Within the HIV “Medical Home”: A Guided Algorithm for Antidepressant Management by HIV Clinicians. AIDS Patient Care & STDs, 26(11), 647–654.

algorithm, n. (2019). In Oxford English Dictionary Online. Retrieved from

austinnotduncan. (2019, September 21). I almost forgot what day it is thanks YouTube algorithm [Twitter post]. Retrieved from

Duan, M., Yang, H., Wang, S., & Liu, Y. (2019). Self-adaptive dual-strategy differential evolution algorithm. PLoS ONE, 14(10), 1–25.

Stone, W. E. (1972). Abacists versus algorists. Journal of Accounting Research, 345-350.

Wang, C., Fu, G., Zhang, D., Wang, H., & Zhao, J. (2019). Genetic Algorithm-Based Variable Value Control Method for Solving the Ground Target Attacking Weapon-Target Allocation Problem. Mathematical Problems in Engineering, 1–9.

Leave a Reply