24 September 2007

What Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi Knew

Nice to see algorithms getting some respect:

Algorithms, as closely guarded as state secrets, buy and sell stocks and mortgage-backed securities, sometimes with a dispassionate zeal that crashes markets. Algorithms promise to find the news that fits you, and even your perfect mate. You can’t visit Amazon.com without being confronted with a list of books and other products that the Great Algoritmi recommends.

Its intuitions, of course, are just calculations — given enough time they could be carried out with stones. But when so much data is processed so rapidly, the effect is oracular and almost opaque. Even with a peek at the cybernetic trade secrets, you probably couldn’t unwind the computations.

Maybe; but the point is, they are just calculations. Which is why the idea of patenting any of them - as raw algorithms, business methods, or software - is, er, patently ridiculous.

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