The Argentinian writer Jorge Borges had a fascination with a concept known as the infinite monkey theorem. The idea is that if you had an infinite amount of monkeys pecking away at an infinite amount of typewriters, they would randomly create the collected works of Tolstoy and every other masterwork ever written (or that could be written).
The theorem, which has been around for at least a century, is troubling because it calls into question what it means to be human. If we can be inspired by something that could so easily be randomly generated, then what does it mean to be meaningful? Is meaning just an illusion we construct to make ourselves happy?
In recent years, the rise of artificial intelligence has transformed this theoretical dilemma into an intensely practical issue. In a world in which machines are taking over work long thought of as intensely human, what is the role of human labor? How do we create value that is distinct from what machines can do faster and cheaper? The answers will shape our future.
Machines Replacing Humans
The first industrial robot, called Unimate, was installed on an assembly line at General Motors in 1961. Since then, robots have become highly integrated into our economy. They do dangerous jobs, like bomb disposal, as well as more prosaic ones, like running warehouses and legal discovery.
And lest you think that automation only applies to low-skill, mechanical jobs, robots are also invading the creative realm. One book written by a machine was even accepted as a submission for the prestigious Hoshi Shinichi Literary Award in Japan. There are now robots that advise physicians, movie producers and music executives. Some even write songs.
Yet these things have been, for the most part, going on in the background. Very few of us see robots at work in factories, much less evaluating scripts, reading mammograms or doing research for lawyers. However, the introduction of ChatGPT brings the power of AI to anyone with an Internet connection.
If you haven’t tried it yourself yet, here’s an example: I asked it to explain the infinite monkey theorem to me and this is what I got:
The infinite monkey theorem states…