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A Hundred Monkeys of Doom

There's the old story of a hundred monkeys randomly typing on a hundred typewriters eventually, over time, producing the works of Shakespeare. The point of this story is that once written, Shakespeare's plays and poetry are a fixed sequence of letters. If a hundred monkeys type random character sequences over thousands of years, eventually they'll produce a match to the Shakespeare sequence.

Of course, if Shakespeare had never lived or written his work, it's possible the monkeys would have still produced the Shakespeare sequence simply by virtue of the fact that all sequences are eventually be produced. On another level, this story is an attack on the artist. The work of the author is just an ordering of glyphs into a sequence that results in a pleasurable decoding experience for humans. Obviously a machine could be built to randomly produce these letter sequences, and then filter out the ones that have the qualities humans appreciate as they decode them. Computing power is verging on the capability to replace human creativity across the board through sheer brute force.

Software engineers often joke about the career potential of liberal arts majors. Something about “do you want fries with that.” But what's lost on them is that Shakespeare's works, reduced to a sequence of letters, is just some fixed sequence of letters. It has little to do with Shakespeare's particular genius. The complex software written by coders could just as easily be the subject of the story. Given enough time, a hundred monkeys at a hundred typewriters could produce the Unix operating system, Microsoft Word or Adobe Photoshop. In fact, unlike the works of Shakespeare, it would be much simpler to determine whether randomly generated software code was usable and useful.

Venture capitalists might be better served by investing in these random software generators than in human software engineers. Company founders can be royal pains. Over time the system would generate software that generated random software using commodity computing hardware. The need for engineers would be completely eliminated.

To put a darker cast on the story, a hundred monkeys at a hundred network-connected Unix command lines could generate spam, worms and viruses that would disable the entire network of networks. Even the tightest firewalls and security systems could be breached using this monkey-powered random brute force attack. No security system is perfect, they all have holes that are invisible until an unexpected exploit occurs.

When we say “over some period of time” we usually mean some far off future that none of us will experience. It could take thousands, even millions of years. Of course, the nature of randomness means that, very possibly, it could be the next roll of the dice that seals our fate.



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