It’s a question that’s as old as the hills. The hills in question being of the earthy and grassy variety, not the fake and vacuous reality TV show.
The question being: If an infinite amount of monkeys on typewriters had an infinite amount of time, wouldn’t they eventually recreate the entire works of Shakespeare by randomly bashing keys and flinging poo around?
The poo not being a necessary element of the creative process, but let’s face it, an inevitable part of the scenario.
Of course, this isn’t a scenario which can actually be tested, not least of all because of the infinite amount of numbers twos – not of the typed variety – involved, and the very finite availability of janitors. And the fact that infinity, at the best of times, is a tricky little concept.
But one American programmer has created what he believes is something of an approximation of this theoretical experiment, using not an infinite amount (strangely) but nonetheless “millions” of “virtual monkeys”.
Virtual monkeys being computer programs which were created on Amazon’s EC2 cloud computing system by programmer Jesse Anderson, according to a report by the BBC.
These programs replicate a monkey bashing on a typewriter by generating random strings of letters.
Anderson set up each program to generate nine random characters at a time, with each of these strings then being tested for compatibility against the entire works of Shakespeare.
If a match is found, those words are marked off as “written”. And with the programs having been running for just over a month, they’ve now replicated 99.99% of Shakespeare’s entire library of plays and poetry.
But wait a minute, you say. Or we certainly said, anyway. This isn’t quite what the original problem had in mind, which was whether one single monkey could randomly bash out the entire works eventually at one sitting. A vastly – indeed infinitely – different matter of probability.
And of course, we just go back to the fact that this proposition can never be tested. So what’s the point of this experiment? It seems to be:
A few million monkeys can occasionally replicate the odd word or two from Shakespeare’s writing, and when all these are stitched together the bard’s complete works can be bodged up in just over a month, give or take a week.
Not quite as pithy, is it?