Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate - Information Technology/Introduction to Algorithms

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In mathematics, computing, linguistics and related subjects, an algorithm is a sequence of finite instructions, often used for calculation and data processing. It is formally a type of effective method in which a list of well-defined instructions for completing a task will, when given an initial state, proceed through a well-defined series of successive states, eventually terminating in an end-state. The transition from one state to the next is not necessarily deterministic; some algorithms, known as probabilistic algorithms, incorporate randomness.

Formalization of algorithms

Algorithms are essential to the way computers process information. Many computer programs contain algorithms that specify the specific instructions a computer should perform (in a specific order) to carry out a specified task, such as calculating employees’ paychecks or printing students’ report cards. Thus, an algorithm can be considered to be any sequence of operations that can be simulated by a Turing-complete system. Authors who assert this thesis include Savage (1987) and Gurevich (2000):

...Turing's informal argument in favor of his thesis justifies a stronger thesis: every algorithm can be simulated by a Turing machine (Gurevich 2000:1)...according to Savage [1987], an algorithm is a computational process defined by a Turing machine. (Gurevich 2000:3)

Typically, when an algorithm is associated with processing information, data is read from an input source, written to an output device, and/or stored for further processing. Stored data is regarded as part of the internal state of the entity performing the algorithm. In practice, the state is stored in one or more data structures.

For any such computational process, the algorithm must be rigorously defined: specified in the way it applies in all possible circumstances that could arise. That is, any conditional steps must be systematically dealt with, case-by-case; the criteria for each case must be clear (and computable).

Because an algorithm is a precise list of precise steps, the order of computation will always be critical to the functioning of the algorithm. Instructions are usually assumed to be listed explicitly, and are described as starting "from the top" and going "down to the bottom", an idea that is described more formally by flow of control.

So far, this discussion of the formalization of an algorithm has assumed the premises of imperative programming. This is the most common conception, and it attempts to describe a task in discrete, "mechanical" means. Unique to this conception of formalized algorithms is the assignment operation, setting the value of a variable. It derives from the intuition of "memory" as a scratchpad.

Expressing algorithms

Algorithms can be expressed in many kinds of notation, including natural languages, pseudocode, flowcharts, and programming languages. Natural language expressions of algorithms tend to be verbose and ambiguous, and are rarely used for complex or technical algorithms. Pseudocode and flowcharts are structured ways to express algorithms that avoid many of the ambiguities common in natural language statements, while remaining independent of a particular implementation language. Programming languages are primarily intended for expressing algorithms in a form that can be executed by a computer, but are often used as a way to define or document algorithms.

There is a wide variety of representations possible and one can express a given Turing machine program as a sequence of machine tables (see more at finite state machine and state transition table), as flowcharts (see more at state diagram), or as a form of rudimentary machine code or assembly code called "sets of quadruples" (see more at Turing machine).

Sometimes it is helpful in the description of an algorithm to supplement small "flow charts" (state diagrams) with natural-language and/or arithmetic expressions written inside "block diagrams" to summarize what the "flow charts" are accomplishing.

Representations of algorithms are generally classed into three accepted levels of Turing machine description (Sipser 2006:157):

1 High-level description: "...prose to describe an algorithm, ignoring the implementation details. At this level we do not need to mention how the machine manages its tape or head" 2 Implementation description: "...prose used to define the way the Turing machine uses its head and the way that it stores data on its tape. At this level we do not give details of states or transition function" 3 Formal description: Most detailed, "lowest level", gives the Turing machine's "state table".


Most algorithms are intended to be implemented as computer programs. However, algorithms are also implemented by other means, such as in a biological neural network (for example, the human brain implementing arithmetic or an insect looking for food), in an electrical circuit, or in a mechanical device.


One of the simplest algorithms is to find the largest number in an (unsorted) list of numbers. The solution necessarily requires looking at every number in the list, but only once at each. From this follows a simple algorithm, which can be stated in a high-level description English prose, as:

High-level description:

Assume the first item is largest. Look at each of the remaining items in the list and if it is larger than the largest item so far, make a note of it. The last noted item is the largest in the list when the process is complete. (Quasi-)formal description: Written in prose but much closer to the high-level language of a computer program, the following is the more formal coding of the algorithm in pseudocode or pidgin code:

Algorithm LargestNumber

 Input: A non-empty list of numbers L.
 Output: The largest number in the list L.
 largest ← L0
 for each item in the list L≥1, do
   if the item > largest, then
     largest ← the item
 return largest

Reference: Introduction to Algorithms