Useless machine

A useless machine is a device that performs a mostly useless task, such as switching itself off, performing no other practical function. In its modern form, the useless machine appears to have been invented by AI pioneer Marvin Minsky at Bell Labs in the 1950s, which he named the “ultimate machine” (Minsky also invented a “gravity machine” that would ring a bell if the gravitational constant were to change, a theoretical possibility that is not expected to occur in the foreseeable future). The device has also been called the “Leave Me Alone Box“.

Minsky’s mentor at Bell Labs, information theory pioneer Claude Shannon, made his own versions of the machine (similar to this one). He kept one on his desk, where science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke saw it, later writing:

There is something unspeakably sinister about a machine that does nothing — absolutely nothing — except switch itself off.


(see also: the Trammel of Archimedes a.k.a. the “do-nothing grinder”)

5 thoughts

  1. So its intended behaviour is simplistic, and – I agree – unnerving. But these two characteristics raise two further questions for me:

    1. What machine behaviours do humans find unnerving?
    2. Is there any complex emergent behaviour?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.