Fusion Blog

Virtual Monkeys: Using Technology to Create Art

Sock monkey

A software developer from Nevada recently made headlines when his army of computer-simulated monkeys completed “A Lover’s Complaint”—a narrative poem by Shakespeare.

Jesse Anderson created the team of digital monkeys in an attempt to answer a time-honored intellectual adage about the laws of probability: If you give 1 million monkeys 1 million typewriters, they will eventually type the entire works of William Shakespeare. For his experiment, Anderson used Amazon EC2, Ubuntu Linux and open-source software called Hodoop to create a group of “monkeys” that type random text in an attempt to mimic real primates.

News stories about Jesse Anderson’s virtual jungle might spur a number of questions, but if readers focus too much on the idea of a virtual monkey they may lose the point. After all, this story really isn’t about monkeys at all. It’s about Anderson’s ingenuity and how technology advances the theory in a way that was once not possible.

Virtual Monkeys

The Infinite Monkey Theorem isn’t new. Versions of this saying date back to Aristotle. (In fact, the theory has been around long enough to become the focus of pop-culture satire—Anderson got his idea from an episode of The Simpsons). The probability aspect of this theory has also been proven using a number for mathematical equations. However, the first time this theorem was tested wasn’t until 2003 when the Paignton Zoo in Devon, England left a computer keyboard in an enclosure of six Macaques for a month. The monkeys only produced five pages (mostly of the letter “S”) before attacking the keyboard and marking their territory on it.

Even if the Paignton Zoo would have had particularly well-behaved monkeys, the scale of this theorem would have made it nearly impossible to test. Not only do an army of 1 million apes pose their own issues—housing, feeding, etc.—but the concept of “eventually” implies that it might take the monkeys more than one lifetime—human or primate lifetime—to complete the project. This adds an entirely new layer of complication.

Technology—in this case, a tribe of virtual monkeys—allowed this theory to be completed in a controlled environment and over a manageable time frame.  As Anderson notes in his blog his digital monkeys are “fast, random, well behaved monkeys,” something that would have been hard to come by without the assistance of technology.

Utilizing Ingenuity

As we have already established, Jesse Anderson did not create real monkeys, but he found an ingenious solution that helped him model monkey behavior. Anderson sought an answer and wagered that his technological ingenuity would enable him to get it.

In the end, Jesse Anderson’s project reinforces the idea that technology can help us drive additional value into our business when faced with unusual circumstances, seemingly difficult questions or variable scenarios. And do so while effectively managing costs and risks.

SOUND OFF: How does your company use technology in your business? Have you ever tried a traditional solution, only to discover that a more cost-effective or less complicated answer could be reached through technology?

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