Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Exploration vs exploitation: natural, human and artificial

Desmond Morris in his famous book "The naked ape", that studies the Human Animal as a zoologist would study the species, has a chapter on "exploration", a word related to the Latin term Neophilia: love of the new. He mentions that neophilia and Neophobia -fear of the new- must be balanced on humans for proper functioning. Neophilia and the exploratory urge is a distinguishing capacity of our species, and it has enabled our zoologically unprecedented adaptability to changing environmental circumstances, whereas other species perished because they were unable to adapt. However, neophilia must be balanced by some neophobia, the conservative instinct that enables us to take advantage of all that neophilia has discovered. We would have long perished if as a species we would only have developed neophilia or neophobia.

Particular individuals -or cultures, or sects- may exhibit excess of either neophilia or neophobia, but on average on Planet Earth over the ages there has been a healthy balance between both.

Curiously, I found an analogous balance when doing my PhD thesis on adaptable systems; in my case, adaptable strategies for query answering in databases. I discovered the work of John Holland form the University of Michigan, who has devoted his life to the study of adaptable artificial systems. He also posits that a "sane" adaptable system must achieve a balance between what he calls Exploration of its environment to find new opportunities, and Exploitation of whatever it already knows. Holland is the father of Genetic Systems, optimization computer programs that achieve optima precisely by tweaking some parameters in order to reach such a balance.

Successful organizations also strive to achieve that balance; they must dedicate resources to explore and take advantage of opportunities in their environment, while simultaneously exploiting whatever they have learned. If they do not explore and take risks, they would loose against other organizations that do; if they on the other hand take excessive risk and forget to take care and improve day-to-day operations, they would loose again.

And the same may happen to You, the reader. Are you too conservative? Too afraid to take risks? Or on the other hand, you cannot sit still but are permanently in flux, not  taking advantage and exploit whatever you have learned? In our over-changing world, only individuals that achieve a balance would survive and progress...