The Infinite Monkey Experiment

By Anupum Pant

According to the Infinite Monkey theorem, a monkey forced to be with a keyboard in a room for infinite amount of time would manage to almost surely finish typing a given text, complete works of William Shakespeare for instance. This theorem of course isn’t meant as an insult to Shakespeare work. Instead it is a concept in mathematics that uses the monkey metaphor coined by a French mathematician  Émile Borel in 1913, to describe an abstract device that produces an endless random sequence of letters and symbols. Which goes on to say that such a device, powered for infinite amount of time would almost surely finish typing a given text at some point.

Well, when there’s infinite, there are questions. And the theorem itself is a huge question mark when it comes to actually seeing its relevance in the real world. Even if you had an army of monkeys that filled the whole universe, to complete a piece of text such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet is so minuscule that the chance of it occurring during a period of time hundreds of thousands of orders of magnitude longer than the age of the universe is extremely low (but technically not zero).

For someone to assume that this could be tested in the real world would be a complete could be said to be nothing less than borderline insanity.

However, in the year 2003, a few art lecturers and students from the medialab of University of Plymouth decided to use a £2000 grant to test the literary output of monkeys. Six Sulawesi crested macaques (namely Elmo, Gum, Heather, Holly, Mistletoe & Rowan) in Paignton Zoo in Devon in England were kept in an enclosure for a month, with a robust piece of hardware. By the end they did produce a short book and it was published as a limited edition book. [Read it here]

The book that got published really contained no discernible words, or anything even close to what you could call a word, but the experiment itself had at least some scientific impact. In the words of Dr Amy Plowman, Paignton Zoo scientific officer…

The work was interesting but had little scientific value, except to show that the “infinite monkey” theory is flawed

Later, the data from this experiment got merged with a larger project by i-DAT.

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