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Why Thomas Huxley was wrong about monkeys, typing forever, producing Shakespeare

New York Zoological Society/Public Domain

Russ White offers an explanation:

Marshaling information requires these two things: at least one dictionary and at least one grammar.

As shown in the IMT example, there can be many layers of dictionaries, and the grammar can be quite fuzzy. The grammar and dictionary often interact with one another, as well.

These issues speak to intent. It is not enough to form symbols; it is not enough to form words; it is not enough to form sentences. Before communication can begin, there must be an intention to communicate which results in the creation of dictionaries and grammars which interact with one another and are often layered in complex ways. Intent, then, is a critical component of communication.

The implication for artificial intelligence is this: it is not enough, as Turing proposed, to trick a person into thinking a computer is a person. Somewhere there must be a person who intends this result. If the artificial intelligence cannot provide that intent, then the person who designs the system must.

Practitioners in the field of artificial intelligence often follow Turing’s lead in either one of two things. Either they assume that intent does not matter in defining intelligence, as he does in the imitation game and in arguing that it is possible to replace human calculators with machines. Or they presuppose that intent does not exist, that it is a useful illusion.

Neither of these approaches, however, will ultimately work — real communication requires intent, not only in the communication itself but even in the creation of dictionaries and grammars which interact with one another and are often layered in complex ways.

Russ White, “Why monkeys, typing forever, can’t produce Shakespeare” at Mind Matters News

Agree? Disagree?

Further reading by Russ White, on the real world of high tech:

Pop-ups? Just say no, and close those tabs! Making the internet work for YOU means, among other things, getting control of who can follow you around. If allowing these notifications sounds like a perfect avenue for an attacker, that’s because it is. This attack surface is a very large hole in the security of your computer.

Should You Pay For a Virtual Private Network (VPN)? Here’s what a VPN can and can’t do for you. In some cases, specifically when you are using public wireless services, using a VPN can add measurably to your privacy and security. But VPNs are not a “silver bullet” in solving the many security and privacy issues users face today.

The internet’s structure builds in privacy flaws. The Domain Name resolver knows every service you visit, and every service those services rely on, as you move around the internet

You think you have nothing to hide? Then why are Big Tech moguls making billions from what you and others tell them?


Why you can’t just ask social media to forget you. While we now have a clear picture of the challenges current social media pose to peoples and cultures, what to do is unclear

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One monkey typed 'the selfish gene'. Truthfreedom
Before communication can begin, there must be an intention to communicate which results in the creation of dictionaries and grammars which interact with one another and are often layered in complex ways. Intent, then, is a critical component of communication. .......................... Why, precisely, do the theoretical infinite monkeys typing infinitely not produce the works of Shakespeare? According to information theory, given infinite resources, they should be able to. And yet, we know — intuitively — that they will not. .......................... (Even) restricting the monkeys to the possibilities within the dictionary represented by the typewriters, however, does not mean they produce the works of Shakespeare by infinite typing. In order to get closer to the works of Shakespeare, the monkeys must produce collections of letters in the form of words. Each word, in turn, has a range of meaning defined by yet another dictionary, which is also agreed on by those wishing to communicate, before communication begins. Words, however, are not enough. The words must be arranged using a grammar so that they form a thought...
I don't agree with the basic argument of the article. I don't think that we intuitively know anything of the sort. Just the opposite. It seems to me that the Huxley argument that an uncountably large or infinite number of monkeys typing at random will eventually inevitably someday produce all the works of Shakespeare is intuitively and technically valid, because the issue isn't intelligent communication of anything. It's just the eventual production by a random process of a certain preselected target string, independent of any meaning and or semantic content. This is shown just by drastically reducing the amount of information of the target string to for example four particular words in a specified order. The principle is the same, but now just a relatively few monkeys in a relatively few years will inevitably produce the particular target configuration. Whether this configuration has any human meaning is irrelevant. The issue is just whether a random process if given large enough resources of numbers of random letter generators and time will inevitably eventually produce some, any, preselected target configuration. The target could just as easily be a randomly selected string of 10**100 letters and punctuation marks. Something with no human communication of anything. Something not requiring dictionaries, rules of syntax and semantics, etc. The fundamental flaw in the Huxley argument is that the typing monkeys thought experiment places absolutely no limit to the resources available, so that infinity is the limit, a very very large number. That's the basic argument of the multiverse advocates to explain the exquisitely fine tuning of the laws of physics. It seems to me that the Huxley argument is technically valid. But it obvously abjectly fails to show anything meaningful. That anything like the amount of complex specified information (not merely the Shannon information of information theory) in the works of Shakespeare, much less the hugely greater amount in biology, could come about through a random process when given anything even remotely like all the combinatorial resources of the Universe since the Big Bang. Probably not even if given a thousand orders of magnitude more resources than that. But that would still be a lot lot less than infinity. doubter
"Unfortunately, the macaques also relieved themselves on the keyboards." Passed the Turing Test! Doing exactly what real humans do! polistra
What would keep the monkeys from leaving their stations and going to look for bananas? Andrew asauber
Would the monkeys recognise what they had they produced if they did write Hamlet? Or would they just keep typing? aarceng
I'm still waiting for a monkey to put a single piece of paper into a typewriter and line up the paper. BobRyan

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