Virtual "monkeys on typewriters" recreate ninety-nine percent of Shakespeare

A new monkey Shakespeare simulator has risen, and has managed to get through a good ninety-nine percent of Shakespeare's works. Why has this new challenger done so well when others have failed?

Top image: Art by Heather Fallows, via Jemima Gibbons on Flickr.

Jesse Anderson has created a new version of the million-monkeys-on-a-million-typewriters thought experiment. He has built a simulator to pound out jibberish, imitating random pounding on a keyboard by monkeys, in an effort to find out whether enough random typing can eventually recreate the entire works of William Shakespeare. It seems like it can. The virtual monkeys have tapped out over ninety-nine percent of all of Shakespeare's plays, and have finished the poem "A Lovers Complaint" — which goes something like, "Wherefore am I surrounded by all these damn dirty apes?" (I think. I'm rusty on my Shakespeare.)

This is not the first monkey Shakespeare simulator to hit web, but it is the most successful. The original Monkey Shakespeare Simulator Project produced 10^35 pages before it was shut down, but its largest string was only a twenty-three character phrase from Timon of Athens. Anyone who has read it knows there's a zinger or two in it. On his tombstone Timon wants this inscribed, "Here lie I, Timon, who alive all living men did hate. Pass by and curse thy fill, but pass, and stay not here thy gait." In other words, 'Keep moving, jerks.' Still, the play isn't worth the expended energy of all those monkeys, and they didn't recreate one of the good lines anyway.

The success of this simulator seems to be in the volume and the technique used. Anderson's project puts out random strings of characters, and then searches those characters for strings of nine that match any nine characters in any of Shakespeare's works. When it finds a match, it marks those nine characters of a play 'complete'. Enough nine character strings, plucked from anywhere in the random jibberish, and you can fill in the blanks for an entire play.

Some say that this isn't random enough, and that the original spirit of the infinite monkeys idea was to have them recreate entire works, pages, or even just lines. Nine characters isn't really random, if they're selected from anywhere and put together deliberately. To be fair, though, the "infinite monkeys" idea has been dumbed down already. The original thought experiment, dreamed up in France, has the monkeys typing up the entire contents of the Bibliotheque Nationale or the British Museum. Shakespeare seems appallingly easy in comparison.

Via Discovery.