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Typewriting Monkeys and Thought Experiments

Published April 1, 2023

If you had infinite monkeys and infinite typewriters... could you produce a complete work of Shakespeare?

Have you ever heard of the typewriting monkeys? It's a famous idea that was first introduced by a mathematician named Émile Borel back in 1913. The idea goes like this: imagine you have an infinite number of monkeys, typewriters, and paper. If you were to leave the monkeys to randomly type on the typewriters for an infinite amount of time, would they eventually produce a work of Shakespeare?

It might seem like an impossibly silly task, but the idea is based on the sound fundamentals of probability. Probability is a branch of math that helps us understand how likely something is to happen. In this case, the probability of one of infinite monkeys randomly typing out a complete work of Shakespeare is incredibly low, but not impossible.

As you might imagine, the idea of the typewriting monkeys has captured the imagination of people for over a century. It has been referenced in books, movies, and even on TV shows like The Simpsons.

What's the Point?

You might be wondering, what's the point of the typewriting monkeys experiment? It's not a practical experiment, and we're never going to ever really have an infinite number of monkeys and typewriters.

This is what's known as a thought experiment, kind of like an experiment you do in your mind. Thought experiments are incredibly useful tools—in fact it was a thought experiment that kickstarted Einstein's development of his theory of relativity. In the case of the monkeys and typewriter thought experiment, we're encouraged to think about how we define "impossible."

The Typewriting Monkeys in Popular Culture

The idea of the typewriting monkeys has appeared in many different forms of popular culture. Here are just a few examples:

  • In the book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, a group of hyper-intelligent beings try to figure out the meaning of life by building a supercomputer that uses the typewriting monkeys idea.
  • In the TV show The Simpsons, a group of monkeys are used to write a script for the fictional TV show Itchy and Scratchy
  • In the movie Jurassic Park mathematician Ian Malcolm uses the idea of the typewriting monkeys to explain chaos theory to his fellow characters.

The Internet Provides Infinite Monkeys... Sort of

It turns out, someone in 2003 decided to create a website testing the theory, calling it "The Monkey Shakespeare Simulator." The website used a computer program to generate random sequences of letters, much like the typewriting monkeys. The program produced millions of lines of text, but as you might expect, none of it was quite a work of Shakespeare. Although, it finally produced this partial line from Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 2, reporting that it took "2,737,850 million billion billion billion monkey-years" to reach 24 matching characters:

"RUMOUR. Open your ears; 9r"5j5&?OWTY Z0d"

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