back to article Virtual cloud monkeys go bananas writing Shakespeare

A developer and Simpsons fan has reported his first success in an experiment to test the infinite monkey theorem: that primates could produce Shakespeare by randomly pressing keys. Jesse Anderson set up software to generate random sets of nine ASCII characters and then match them against the complete works of Shakespeare, …


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  1. MondoMan


    Since this guy is willing to throw real money at pointless, poorly-thought-out "experiments", maybe I can get him to just Paypal me the cash instead.

    1. Paul M 1

      At least we can always rely on the Reg commentards...

      ... to suck all the fun out of life.

      1. Just Thinking

        There never was any fun in this. Totally pointless. If I select random 9 character strings, and retain the ones which match a substring of a longer text, will I eventually match the entire text? Well yes, obviously. You can even estimate how long it will take.

        If I drop individual grains of sand into a big glass jar, will it eventually fill up? Same answer. Just because something takes a long time doesn't turn it into an interesting philosophical question.

        1. Paul M 1

          @Just Thinking


    2. Marvin the Martian

      That's why you're a code monkey.

      You have to see the rest of the picture.

      He didn't care about the experiment, he knew exactly what he was doing. He parametrized it so that it would end in a finite time -- waiting for all needed 9 letter strings to appear has the correct timeframe; 8 letter strings goes 26x faster, 10 letter 26x slower.

      As he explained to the Beeb, he did it to learn his way around Hadoop --- it's a marketable skill, and he's been in every non-techical news report around the world: very very cheap career advertising at $20/day for a short while. [He started for free when Amazon was giving away access to attract developers, and he took it offline when there wasn't anything left to learn to save the $20/day.]

      1. Just Thinking


        I see, so he write a trivial bit of code to learn a bit about Hadoop, then ran around shouting about it because people who do that always get offered great jobs.

        And here was me thinking he had done something pointless.

    3. Mighty Thor

      There was a theory that an infinite number of monkeys with keyboards and infinite amounts of time on their hands, would eventually produce the collected works of William Shakespeare. Thanks to the invention of blogging, that theory has now been proven false!

  2. Pooua

    Where It All Began

    The idea of using a fleet of monkeys to produce the works of Shakespeare did not begin with "The Simpsons." The idea stretches back to ancient times. In modern context, it is most often used as an argument against evolutionary common descent by random forces and chance events. Producing the genetic code of even the simplest organisms by random sequences would require several times over more time than the universe is expected to exist.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      The problem is that if it hadn't happened then we'd not be here talking about it... Given enough time, enough universes (multiverse believer here) then *everything* is possible.

      It's either that or except the much easier concept of their being a divine being, in which case I'm afraid it's turtles all the way down time :)

      1. Eddy Ito Silver badge

        "Given... enough universes[sic] (multiverse believer here)"

        There can only be one universe, by definition. Either there exists a universe or multiverses but not multiple or parallel universe. There is no honest meaning to a plural of universe inasmuch as a universe is supposed to include everything. It isn't like a unicycle of which you can have several but is more like a multiwheel unicycle which isn't a unicycle at all but is some type of bicycle, tricycle, etc.

        As to which it is, either uni- or multi-, I'll leave that to the bodhisattva.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      @Pooua Evolution != Math.rnd()

      Just want to stress that evolution has absolutely nothing to do with randomness, and that if this idea is used as an argument against it, it is only because the people arguing have no understanding (or intention of understanding) anything about evolution theory.

      Yep totally agree with the point about this idea not having anything to do with The Simpsons either - a ludicrous implication by the article writer!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Evolution unrelated to randomness?

        If not random variation, what source of variation are you suggesting allows Natural Selection?

        Natural Selection is a process that works on natural variation, not a process that causes natural variation.

        Lamarckism and random variation are two of the processes that are commonly suggested as being sources of natural variation for Natural Selection to work on. Radiation was another suggested source of variation. Population restriction enhances variation, but requires a source of original variation.

        Evolutionary change based on observable natural variation is not, and never has been, compatible with the calculated age of the Earth. If you depend on observable variation, it doesn't work. This problem has always been obvious, even if 1859. It has been addressed in a number of ways, including by modern theories of speciation, which do not reject a link between randomness and evolution.

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    4. Chris Miller


      "it is most often used as an argument against evolutionary common descent by random forces and chance events"

      If this experiment has any point, it is to demonstrate that such an argument is wrong. Trying to produce a complete works of Shakespeare (~360,000 specific characters) would need more than 10^500,000 attempts, which would be a stretch even using EC2, hence the cheating involved.

      It's true that starting from a CHON 'soup' with a few impurities and trying to produce a self-replicating string of RNA by random activity would take longer than the expected lifetime of the universe. But you don't have to do this in one giant leap. There must be (hand-waving involved here) much simpler protein chains that can catalyse the formation of similar chains from the primeval soup. Once you've started to create them, evolutionary forces will start to act to improve their 'reproduction' rate - in some respects the less accurate the reproduction process, the quicker this works. Stanley Miller demonstrated back in the 50s that you can produce proteins from the 'soup' using heat, electricity, stirring and UV light.

      Falling back on the 'big universe' argument isn't very satisfying. Anyway, I'm hoping that we will eventually find unequivocal signs of life, currently or historically existing elsewhere in the universe, which will knock this argument on the head (unless you follow Fred Hoyle with his idea of panspermia).

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Random or design

        "And that argument is, of course, flawed, because evolutionary processes are not random, they have emergent qualities that together form a system."

        Well either they are random or they are designed, which is it to be?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          @AC 13:36

          "Well either they are random or they are designed, which is it to be?"

          Neither (or both). They are selected. Naturally. The minor randomness that takes place is designed over time by the invisible pressure of the environment.

    5. Richard Wharram

      Yes - except evolution isn't random. Things that are good at surviving, survive. Things that aren't don't. Rather important, totally non-random, aspect.

    6. Ian Yates
      Paris Hilton

      I never thought it did start with the Simpsons - I assumed they were referring to how the Simpsons was written... my bad.

      So, when will someone experiment with using manitees to write Family Guy episodes?

      1. Jedit
        Thumb Up

        Use of manatees to write Family Guy episodes

        This project will commence when they feel the urge to increase the quality of the writing.

    7. Schultz

      Producing the genetic code ...

      Producing the genetic code of even the simplest organisms by <STRIKE>random sequences</STRIKE> natural evolution of self-replicating molecules took a billion years (give or take).

      So, fixed that, now the sentence makes a useful statement.

    8. Werner McGoole

      Natural selection in miniature

      You can do a nice demonstration of the power of natural selection if you have, say, ten dice. Throwing them all and getting 10 sixes will take a long time, as any creationist will happily point out. But if you throw them and just keep the sixes that turn up (let's call them successful mutations) and then throw the rest again and repeat... then you pretty soon have 10 sixes.

      I guess this experiment is along the same lines. Analysed logically, its rapid success is obvious. But it's still amazing how many people just can't see the difference between this and throwing all the dice at once.

      So I think it's a useful reminder that there is a world of difference.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Technically, the experiment isn’t an exact test" - you mean it is complete bullshit

    What's so special about getting nine consecutive characters in a row, if they still have to be selectively cut and pasted to make the actual text? Why shouldn't my monkey, that only generates one-letter sequences from Shakespeare, but generated all 26 of them within the first second of operation, count?

    Bunch of self-publicising horseshit. Shame on ElReg for swallowing it.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Hear, hear!

      This idiot basically just defined success in his own terms, and is now congratulating himself for achieving it with a process that he designed to do so.

      That's not achievement, that's sheer mundane egotism.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    yeah well

    i don't know that much about Shakespeare but i doubt he wrote his stuff using 9 character strings and then randomly collating them much like a jigsaw.

    1. Arctic fox

      RE: "Yeah well"

      "i doubt he wrote his stuff using 9 character strings and then randomly collating them much like a jigsaw."

      It is also to be hoped that he did it without without flung faeces.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    'Research' Fail

    Well I can play any piece of music that's ever written for the piano, sure the notes aren't in the right order or the right length....

  6. nyelvmark

    This is not what the old adage describes.

    His "virtual monkeys" generate random sequences of 9 characters, then another process searches Shakespeare's works and, if it finds a hit, says "Yes! This is a genuine piece of Shakespeare!" and marks off that bit as done.

    That's hardly the same as the observation that if an infinite number of monkeys randomly hit keys on an infinite number of typewriters, one of them must eventually duplicate the entire works of Shakespeare as a single continuous text. This can not be practically demonstrated, but doesn't need to. It follows intuitively from the concept "random".

    Why 9-character sequences? If he'd chosen single characters instead, he could (according to his definition) have duplicated the entire works of Shakespeare in only about 60 iterations (depending how many unique characters you want to count in the works of Shakespeare).

    What a waste of money and computing resources.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge


      With an infinite number of monkeys, all typing away at the same time, by the very definition of the word infinite, you will get every book ever written, to be written, or not even thought about yet, produced in the time it takes to type it. That includes all translations in all languages ever created or not yet conceived, human, animal or alien.

      Only if you take away the word infinite and replace it with any conceivable finite number can you even begin to think about applying the concepts of time or statistics to the operation.

      1. nyelvmark
        Thumb Up


        A good point - if there are truly an infinite number of monkeys, then some of them (also an infinite number) will type out the complete works at their first attempt.

        This really only demonstrates that infinity is a concept you need to be careful with in verbal reasoning. Apologies for my sloppiness. For me, infinity usually amounts to any number which will overflow the storage I've allocated it.

        Of course, it still works if you say "a large enough number of monkeys" or even "one monkey, given enough time."

    2. KrisMac
      Thumb Up

      ..I agree with you up to a point...

      The 9 character sequence selection/match process does trivialise the problem, but as a proof of concept of his methodology can be accepted as valid. In order to prove replication of Shakespere, the X number of randomly generated characters must be compared to the original text to determine a match....

      What the experimenter now needs to do is increase the number of randomly generated characters to at least match the length of the shortest of Shakespere's sonnets. In that way, the match must be achieved without the jigsaw puzzle approach..

      I doubt if the experimenter will be still alive to see his creation actually achieve the more difficult task but, (this being a random universe and all), I am always prepared to be amazed :-)

    3. JimC Silver badge

      I dunno, it kinda demonstrates the principle...

      The longer the text string chosen then the longer the content takes to come up, but come up it does - unless the universe ends first...

      As for waste of resource: aren't most things? "let the dirt dig in the dirt if it pleases the dirt..."

  7. Disco-Legend-Zeke

    Monkeys Are More Fun...

    ...when you give them footballs.

    1. Evil Auditor Silver badge


      How boring to watch 22 monkeys playing with a ball. (There's a Simpsons episode as well.)

  8. Graham Marsden

    Orphan works...?

    I hope he doesn't end up getting sued by Google...

    1. bitten

      Copyright trick

      Maybe it is a way to copy a work while circumventing copyright aspects, contrary to the editor the 'writer' was never aware of the original work.

  9. Andrew 59

    "Ford, there's an infinite number of monkeys outside who want to talk to us about this script for Hamlet that they've worked out" - Arthur Dent, Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy.

  10. bitten

    Ig Nobel Prize

    I see it as a cheap way to the Ig Nobel Prize, but then it's a cheap price these days.

  11. JonRussell

    oh come on, lighten up...

    He used the example to teach himself programming on EC2. It's a much more interesting first program than "hello world"...? It's not a waste of money or waste of computing resource... It's just a bit of fun. I like it. Chill out ! :-)

  12. CADmonkey
    Paris Hilton

    qf,] r3h kkkke667 7uuu

    ebkl=,rst32342b ,./flying spaghetti monstur sdfjfjcjvv adf54k,6nlp

    (Paris, dv 898 m,.sa[ l,. 55nfcklc;w'wqertr!!!!)

  13. JeffUK

    I've done this with python on my home PC, took me about 10 minutes to code

    worked a treat; solved a sonnet in about 30 minutes, then I went off and actually did something useful!

    Proves the power of incremental natural selection, nothing more.

  14. edward wright

    Random sequences

    I reckon monkeys don't type randomly. I mean, the chance of getting SSSSSSSSS is rather more likely than getting ABCDEFGHI or hello there. Not all 9 character sequences are statistically equal, but if this experiment is using a pseudo-random number generator without any additional logic, to me, it's not sufficiently monkey-like in behaviour.

    I don't have first experience of monkeys, though my brother once did when an escaped circus money locked himself in my brother's hotel room bathroom. Explaining that to reception was, er, interesting. I digress.

  15. Anonymous Coward

    a contractor writes ...

    "saw six Sulawesi crested macaques being given a computer and left to get typing"

    hey, I've worked with that team on a software project ...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      what happened to the python? Is it still typing?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      For fuck's sake; I actually looked behind me. Time to lay off the minecraft.....

  16. Chris Sake

    Merkin Education

    This is an interesting perspective on the American education system.

    Firstly, the intellectual dumbing down that is implicit in relying on the Simpsons to be educated about an idea that even Aristotle argued.

    And secondly, for having the sophistication to use new technology such as Hadoop.

    This quotation from 1938 seems apropos:

    "But the interest of the suggestion lies in the revelation of the mental state of a person who can identify the 'works' of Shakespeare with the series of letters printed on the pages of a book..."

    -- R. G. Collingwood

  17. Antony Shepherd

    How improbable is that?

    "Ford, there's an infinite number of monkeys out here. They want to talk to us about this script for Hamlet they've just worked out."

  18. Sceptic Tank


    Keep typing chaps. We'll strike gold soon.

  19. Some Beggar

    The "infinite monkeys" isn't supposed to be a practical experiment.

    It is a thought experiment to illustrate that concepts of infinity reduce to the absurd when applied to a finite universe.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    wah wah impractical wah not a scientific experiment wah wah wah worthless...

    It's pretty obvious, he did it for the publicity and the programming skills. Would not be surprised to hear he's been offered a job as a result.

    Good for him.

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