This is part of The Blogging Gauntlet of May 2016, where I try to write 500 words every day. See the May 1st post for full details.
Yesterday I introduced multi-armed bandits. Today I’ll give a delicious real world example: deciding on the best place to get milk tea in Berkeley.
Before I get into the details, let’s set up some ground rules.
- Pearl milk tea is a tea drink made of tea, milk, and tapioca balls. The tapioca balls are also known as pearls.
- Many, many people call this drink “boba” or “bubble tea”. These people are wrong. Yes, I understand there are regional dialects that each have a different word for milk tea, but the correct one is PMT. “Boba” and “bubble” refer to only the tapioca inside the tea. Thus, both “boba” and “bubble tea” are incorrect, because they do not signify that the milk tea drink has milk in it.
- “Boba milk tea” or “bubble milk tea” are acceptable terms that I can tolerate.
Anyways, this post isn’t about milk tea linguistics, it’s about multi-armed bandits. In this setting, initially every arm is a milk tea restaurant. The arm’s payout is random, depending on what flavor of tea I get and how I request it be made. Over time, each arm further divides into more choices, because I need to choose what flavor of tea to get within a given milk tea cafe.
Let’s pretend I’m a freshman again, and have no context about the milk tea scene. As a freshman, I know of three milk tea options: Quickly’s, Sweetheart’s, and Lotus House. I try them for a while, and conclude that Sweetheart’s has the best pearls, and Lotus House has the best tea. This continues to hold up as I try different flavors. Eventually, I converge to alternating between Sweetheart’s and Lotus House based on mood.
A few months later, someone mentions PurpleKow to me. This milk tea place is further from the dorms, but I check it out, and my god, it’s so much better. Here, I paid the price for not exploring enough. If I was serious about milk tea (which I am now), I should have done a search of nearby milk tea places. That would have made me find PurpleKow significantly sooner.
Now, fast forward to next year. Near the south side of campus, two stores open.
- Sheng Kee Bakery, a chain of Asian bakeries that also sell milk tea.
Sheng Kee’s new, so it deserves a few tries. I quickly decide it’s okay, but not good enough. ShareTea’s also new, so I try it, and
ShareTea quickly becomes my go-to spot. At this point, I don’t bother going to PurpleKow or Sweetheart’s. My past observations of the quality of milk tea gives me high confidence in the quality of milk tea from these establishments, and it’s worse than ShareTea’s.
At this point, I have some regret. I could have gotten tea from PurpleKow significantly more than I did. However, it’s outweighed by my decision to explore ShareTea early. I missed PurpleKow for a few months, but I got to exploit ShareTea for years.
Finally, a few months after going to ShareTea several times a week, someone tells me I should really, really try Asha Tea House. I try it, and again I’m surprised. It’s very good, better than ShareTea, but it’s expensive enough to make it a trade-off between quality and quantity. I choose between the two based on which I favor that day.
In the present, it’s worth asking myself how I’ve done. Well, overall my milk tea regret is pretty low. There were a few months where I didn’t explore my options thoroughly enough, but I checked out ShareTea within days of its opening, and got to exploit it for years. There’s some regret from not visiting Asha earlier, but it’s close enough in quality that I don’t feel so bad about it.
The biggest takeaway I want to get across is that we usually don’t do enough exploration. People tend to regret what they didn’t do more than they do, and although there may be some cognitive bias there, the potential reward from trying something amazing means it’s worth exploring more than you think you should. Spending a few months trying different things is cheap compared to years of doing the right thing.