Risk/efficiency trade-offs in pathfinding

Finding my way to a new building, it struck me that two major strategies are possible in urban pathfinding. You can try to follow the most efficient path or you can try to minimize your odds of getting lost. Call those the ‘efficiency’ and ‘reduced risk’ approaches.

Each has some level of appeal. Nobody wants to take an unnecessarily circuitous route, when there is a shorter one available. At the same time, it is foolish to take a path that is nominally shorter but which involves much higher risks of getting lost or having other sorts of trouble.

Shortcuts are a classic example. They speak out to the part of us that seeks efficiency, but they carry special risks. When you deviate from the conventional path, you open the possibility of arriving much sooner than you would otherwise, but you also open the possibility of arriving much later or not at all.

Personally, I am willing to trade a fair bit of efficiency in exchange for simplicity. Even if I can conceivably save time by cutting corners, I prefer to stick to simple routes that I can remember and understand. Subways are good for this – they don’t take you as close to your destination as buses often might, but they are easier to understand.

As an aside, the worst ever solution to the risk/efficiency problem is the ‘try and buzz the head waiter’s home island with your cruise ship‘ strategy. In choosing people to captain cruise ships, there should probably some process to screen out those with such reckless tendencies…

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

3 thoughts on “Risk/efficiency trade-offs in pathfinding”

  1. I generally enjoy the adventure of finding new routes using an intuitive sense of place as long as I do not have to be at the destination at a certain time.

  2. I generally enjoy the adventure of finding new routes. I try to use an intuitive sense of place as long. Thhis seems to work if I do not have to be at the destination at a certain time. In particular, I enjoy picturing a grid in mind and finding the most direct route. Travelling by bicycle or on foot enhances one/s ability to do so. There are the occasional dead-ends.

  3. If the Costa Concordia episode is interesting to you, consider this story of the sinking of the MS Estonia in 1994. It’s a terrifying story and made me consider technical aspects of shipping I never considered before. For instance, if you build a staircase in a ship that runs from starboard to port as opposed to bow to stern, if the boat develops any sort of serious list, you have doomed your passengers to entrapment in an MC Ecsher-esque world. This sort of stairway doomed many in the Estonia to their deaths.

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