Curiosity Is Our Built-In “Exploration Bonus”

Psychologist Tom Stafford, writing for the BBC:

“In the world of artificial intelligence, computer scientists have explored how behavior evolves when guided by different learning algorithms. An important result is that even the best learning algorithms fall down if they are not encouraged to explore a little. Without a little something to distract them from what they should be doing, these algorithms get stuck in a rut, relying on the same responses time and time again.

Computer scientists have learned to adjust how these algorithms rate different possible actions with an ‘exploration bonus’—that is, a reward just for trying something new. Weighted like this, the algorithms then occasionally leave the beaten track to explore. These exploratory actions cost them some opportunities, but leave them better off in the long run because they’ve gain knowledge about what they might do, even if it didn’t benefit them immediately.

The implication for the evolution of our own brain is clear. Curiosity is nature’s built-in exploration bonus. We’re evolved to leave the beaten track, to try things out, to get distracted and generally look like we’re wasting time. Maybe we are wasting time today, but the learning algorithms in our brain know that something we learned by chance today will come in useful tomorrow.

Obviously it would be best if we knew what we needed to know, and just concentrated on that. But in a complex world it is impossible to know what might be useful in the future. And thank goodness—otherwise we would have evolved to be a deadly-boring species which never wanted to get lost, never tried things to just see what happened or did things for the hell of it.

Evolution made us the ultimate learning machines, and the ultimate learning machines need a healthy dash of curiosity to help us take full advantage of this learning capacity.

Or, as Kurt Vonnegut said, ‘We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.’” (Read more here.)

Remember Vonnegut’s immortal words next time you’re wondering whether to try something new. Give it a shot!

2 Responses to “Curiosity Is Our Built-In “Exploration Bonus””

  1. +1 for ‘Curiosity is nature’s built-in [mechanism to motivate us into exploring]…’

    I think curiosity happens when there is a gap between what we know/experience and what we want to know/experience…

  2. Curiosity tells us that our internal antennae that can guide us in our learning is still alive and kicking! Curiosity is the energy that helps us to decide whether we embark on a line of exploration. If our antennae is working well it can also keep guide us in our learning. This is the best kind of learning as ouriosity drives us forward further and further to unravel the mysteries we are exploring.
    Too often we allow our suriosity to be overwhelmed by what we “should” be doing, by what others would think, by what we think is “cool” to explore, by finding an “answer” that demeans our enquiry…and so on. These “distractins” seldom get in the way of the infant learning so they keep on showing us just what amazing learning machines we all can be.
    In the area of language learning, the results of this are seen by the poor results in second language learning. It certainly does not have to be that way once we learn to sensitise ourselves to our anteanne!

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