David Amerland

Markov Chains, Google search and the sum of all our knowledge

Andrey Markov was a 19th century Russian mathematician who excelled at predictive probability mathematics (called stochastic processes) and whose work on a mathematical process now known as Markov Chains has become the foundation upon which many aspects of the Google algorithm rest.

This is of intense interest to us for two reasons: first because, just like 3-D TV this is something which predates our technology and secondly because it perfectly well illustrates the trap we often set ourselves when we rely on the ‘new’ to help us win in our lives.

Whether we work on marketing, selling, advertising, creating or anything which has to do with commerce and the web there is a tendency which I frequently encounter to think of the platform we work on as so new as to constantly wait for something new which will help us get ahead of the competition. In truth there are very few ‘new’ things out there but there are constantly adjustable, adaptive processes.

The case of the Markov Chain, a form of mathematics where a random process is mapped out in a predictive manner based only upon its current process, and Google search and PageRank is a classic example of ‘old thinking’ put to a fresh, new use.

In the latter part of the 20th century we wore the phrase “think outside the box” to extinction, losing site of the fact that it stood for something more than a handy buzzword to include in a resume or a job application. Yet, thinking outside the box is exactly what we ought to be doing each and every moment. Knowledge is not an end in itself but the steps we use to get somewhere else from where we are now.

This is as true of mathematicians, search engine engineers and company CEOs as it is of each of us. To achieve this we need a clear understanding of the principles of what we know as opposed to the facts we know and then a trial-and-error case of applying them to our current situation. Does this sound like a lot of work? The Thomas Edison example of failing more than 1000 times to invent the light bulb is the perfect example of what can be achieved by this kind of approach. Incidentally Edison was the first practical entrepreneur of his day and…yep, he was active in the 19th century too. Time, I guess, for us to get thinking.

© 2019 David Amerland. All rights reserved