How long would it take a million monkeys bashing away on a million keyboards to reproduce the complete works of Shakespeare? Not long, as it turns out: Using "virtual monkeys," Jesse Anderson, a computer programmer from Nevada, has reproduced 99.9% of Shakespeare's work -- and his monkeys have only been at it since August 21.
Anderson's monkeys are computer programs; though they run on his home computer, they borrow their processing power, perhaps ironically, from Amazon.com, which sells time on its high-powered servers through a service called S3. Every second, the "Amazonian monkeys" bash out many nine-letter chunks of text; those nine-letter chunks are then compared to Shakespeare's plays. When all of the nine-letter chunks in a play have been randomly generated, then the play has been successfully reproduced. On his website, Anderson explains that he got the idea from an episode of The Simpsons, in which Mr. Burns has an army of monkeys hard at work trying to reproduce Dickens. (In fact, it's a very old idea: Cicero, arguing against the philosophical concept of atomism, wrote that you "may as well believe that if a great quantity of the one-and-twenty letters... were thrown upon the ground, they would fall into such order as legibly to form the Annals of Ennius.")
Shakespeare-monkey purists, naturally, will complain that this isn't what people have in mind when they talk about monkeys and Shakespeare: Anderson's monkeys aren't really reproducing Shakespeare, but just nine-letter-long strings of text that happen, also, to be in Shakespeare's ouevre. It would take a monkey much longer to reproduce, by chance, all of Hamlet at one go. Still, as Nick Collins of the Telegraph points out, Anderson's experiment has gone much better than the last attempt, at England's Plymouth University in 2003: "Six Sulawesi crested macaques," he writes, "produced five pages of text, mainly composed of the letter S, but failed to type anything close to a word of English, broke the computer and used the keyboard as a lavatory."
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