You have a date for dinner with a friend. There is a restaurant the two of you always visit, reassuring and reliable, but there are so many good places out there. Shouldn’t you try somewhere new?
You have an evening with nothing to do except watch TV and you fancy some comedy. Do you rewatch your favourite series of Parks and Recreation or check out that new Netflix sitcom?
Should you go on holiday to France again or try Slovenia?
You have been together with Jake for seven years now. Jake is a mensch, everyone says it, but you’ve begun to suspect that he is not as smart as you. He is hinting at marriage. Other men are available.
Should we organise our education system around skills or self-actualisation?
Why does Hollywood focus on blockbuster franchises to the exclusion of almost everything else?
These examples all involve a trade-off faced by everyone, every day, at home and at work: whether to rely on what we know, or experiment with what we don’t; whether to choose the best or try the new. We want both, of course, but sadly, time and money are finite.
In computer science, they have a term for this: the explore/exploit trade-off. (In everyday language, ‘exploit’ has negative connotations, but here it simply means to apply our existing knowledge - to put what we’ve learnt to work.) Every organism, every individual, every organisation has to deal with the explore/exploit trade-off in various ways and find the balance that works for them in any given situation.
As a framework for analysing problems, explore/exploit is very useful and enormously versatile. It can help us think about our personal lives; about our workplaces; about business and education. It illuminates social and political questions, including AI. Basically, it’s a good one to have in your quiver of mental models. So this post is about what it is, how it works and how to use it. Oh and I’ll explain the octopus in a minute.
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