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Speak Math, Not Code


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Leslie Lamport, recipient of the 2013 ACM A.M. Turing Award.

Leslie Lamport, recipient of the 2013 ACM A.M. Turing Award, told a group at the Singapore Management University recently that "Most programmers just start writing code; they don't even know what the algorithm is. It's like starting to build without a blueprint."

Credit: Rebecca Tan

Have you ever followed a recipe to bake some bread? If you have, congratulations; you have executed an algorithm. The algorithms that follow us around the internet to suggest items we might like, and those that control what shows up in our Facebook feeds may seem mysterious and uncanny at times. Yet, an algorithm is simply a set of instructions to be completed in a specified sequence, whether by human bakers or computer programs.

The difference, however, lies in how the algorithm is expressed. Recipes are written in English or other spoken languages while are written in programming languages or code. According to Leslie Lamport, winner of the 2013 Turing Award, thinking mathematically can be a useful step to specifying the algorithm for computer programs, as it can help programmers clarify their thinking and make programs more efficient.

"Most programmers just start writing code; they don't even know what the algorithm is. It's like starting to build without a blueprint," said Lamport, speaking at an exclusive dialogue at the Singapore Management University (SMU) on 14 January 2020, held in conjunction with the SMU-Global Young Scientists Summit 2020.

"And the result? The program is hard to debug and inefficient because you would be trying to optimise at the code level rather than at the algorithm level. We should do what almost every other field of science and engineering does: initially describe the problem with math instead."

From Singapore Management University
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