Explore or exploit

The explore/exploit trade-off has been studied by computer scientists for many decades.

Two weeks ago, I happened to have a nice chat during a taxi ride. John, the driver, told me he travels on vacation every year to a beach city in Egypt by the coast of the Red Sea. John likes the place so much; the beach, the activities, and of course, the food. For five consecutive years, John and his wife have been visiting that very city every July, and he is now making plans to take his brother along this year. There is something that makes John’s choice very interesting — he has decided that he likes the particular city so much, and no longer wants to explore any other city for a vacation.

We come across decisions that have a similar structure in our everyday lives. For example, consider deciding between going for the favourite actor’s movie and that of the upcoming star. This presents a choice between relying on the familiar and exploring the new. Similar is the case when it comes to choosing the favourite mall or visiting the new one that opened last week. Our mind often needs to decide between whether to exploit our current preferences or explore and give ourselves a chance to discover new favourites. The current favourite, after all, was unknown at some point in the past!

The explore/exploit trade-off has been studied by computer scientists for many decades. The key to making the choice, interestingly, is often not the balance between the qualities of the options. Instead, it is the number of opportunities left, to decide across those options.

Consider yourself moving out of your city and choosing restaurants, for one last dinner. The decision here is straightforward – simply go and visit your favourite place, be an exploiter. The last experience better be memorable and the treasured choice will likely not fail you. But, if you have moved into a city where you plan to live for many years, there is every reason to be an explorer of not just restaurants, but cinemas and shopping centres too. If you do not explore the new place, how would you know your options?

Thus, the next time you come across an explore/exploit decision – think of how many more occasions you are likely to come across those choices. If you might have many more shots at those options, explore – else, focus on getting it right now, exploit.

(Dr Deepak P. is a computer scientist and academic staff at Queen's University Belfast, UK)

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