The Free Energy Principle, Minimizing Surprise

“The concept of free energy itself comes from physics, which means it’s difficult to explain precisely without wading into mathematical formulas. In a sense that’s what makes it powerful: It isn’t a merely rhetorical concept. It’s a measurable quantity that can be modeled, using much the same math that Friston has used to interpret brain images to such world-­changing effect. But if you translate the concept from math into English, here’s roughly what you get: Free energy is the difference between the states you expect to be in and the states your sensors tell you that you are in. Or, to put it another way, when you are minimizing free energy, you are minimizing surprise.

According to Friston, any biological system that resists a tendency to disorder and dissolution will adhere to the free energy principle—whether it’s a protozoan or a pro basketball team.

A single-celled organism has the same imperative to reduce surprise that a brain does.”

-Shaun Raviv, “The Genius Neuroscientist Who Might Hold the Key to True AI.” Wired. November 13, 2018.

I found this article about Karl Friston really insightful. It has revealed a long-standing difference between my spouse and I that I never really knew how to talk about before.

My wife has a task focus. She has a list. She is working through her list. Delays are something to be avoided, and exploring any aspect of something that is not immediately solving her problem is wasted time, from her perspective.

As one might be able to tell from the content of this blog, I do not tend to focus on task or particular problems. I’m more interested in understanding how things work, finding edge cases and generally, just trying new ways of doing things to see what happens. It helps me to make a better mental model or a worldview for interpreting the world. It is not time efficient, but over time, it does help me to solve problems faster because I have a better understanding of how things work under different conditions.

It’s clear that focusing on efficiency and maximizing value tend to drive us into task focus. If we have slack, then we can use the second model or exploration to expand our understanding.

But, I think there are habits of thought at play too. If you are in an environment where you are keeping track of your time, say you a in a large law firm that bills every 15 minutes or less of your time, then your ability to switch into exploratory mode might atrophy.

It probably works the other way too. Explorers aren’t time efficient until they have sufficient experience to outperform taskers, which takes time to acquire.

There’s also the point that this might not apply across the board. For example, I might be a technology explorer. But, I might be less of an explorer when it comes to interior decoration, do-it-yourself home repair or other topics. Same is probably true of everyone.

But, I still think this is an interesting idea to have in our toolbox for understanding the world.