The Quick Draw Game – Part 2 – Exploration and Exploitation

Continued from The Quick Draw Game – Part 1 – How To Play

In Quick Draw you don’t actually have five seconds to draw the chosen subject, because you have to use part of your five seconds to decide how you’re going to draw it. The most important skill in the game is deciding how much of the five seconds you spend thinking about how you’re going to draw the subject, and how much you spend actually drawing it. Making this decision involves solving a problem known as the exploration/exploitation tradeoff.

The exploration/exploitation tradeoff arises when you have a limited amount of a resource (often time or money) that you want to use to perform a task or solve a problem. Exploration refers to gathering information about the choices available to you, thinking through your options, and testing out different alternatives. Exploitation refers to acting on that knowledge and actually carrying out the actions that seem to be the best choice. Making the best use of your resources involves finding just the right balance between these two activities.

The classic example of the exploration/exploitation tradeoff is a gambling scenario known as the multi-armed bandit problem. In this problem a gambler has several one-armed-bandit machines available to him. The machines all have different odds of paying out a prize when the lever is pulled, but the gambler doesn’t know what any of the machines’ odds are. The only way he can learn about the odds of the various machines is to play them enough times to make an informed guess. Ideally, the gambler would like to spend all their time playing only the one machine that has the best odds (exploitation), but they have to play all the machines in order to acquire information about which machine actually has the best odds (exploration).

The tradeoff is relevant to many different domains of human activity. For example, if a number of different medical treatments for some condition are available the ideal case is to give the most effective treatment to all of the patients. But in order to gather information about which treatment actually is the most effective one, trials must be conducted, and this involves trying out all the different treatments on patients. The more people you include in the trials the more information you will get about which treatment is the best one, but also more people will receive a less effective treatment as part of the trial. In situations like this striking the right balance of exploration and exploitation can literally be a matter of life and death.

The exploration/exploitation tradeoff actually crops up in so many facets of life that once you are aware of it you may begin to see it everywhere. For example, when you visit a restaurant you can choose to try something new (exploration) or to order something you’ve enjoyed before (exploitation). Or, when commuting to work you can take an efficient route that you’re already familiar with, or you can try a route you haven’t taken before to see if it’s better than your usual one.

You can even think of the difference between pure science and applied science (like engineering) as being a distinction between exploration and exploitation. Science uses resources like money and manpower to explore the world and to figure out how it works and what’s possible. Engineering uses the same resources to take the knowledge that science produces and exploit it for practical purposes.

By compressing the entire process of exploration and exploitation into just five seconds, Quick Draw makes this tradeoff striking and visceral. If you spend four seconds exploring how you’re going to draw something, you’re left with inadequate time to actually make a drawing. On the other hand, if you spend all your time drawing without any planning at all, you’re likely to produce a drawing that’s unintelligible. To produce a comprehensible drawing in five seconds requires just the right balance of thought and action.