A Machine You Don’t Need

The New York Times:  Letter of Recommendation: The Useless Machine

On the lower left-hand corner of my desk sits a wooden box, roughly the size and shape of a smallish jewelry case and featureless save for a small metal switch on its uppermost surface. From time to time over the course of my workday, I reach out to flick this switch, and a hatch opens at the top of the box, and a small fingerlike projection, driven by a whirring motor within, emerges and pushes the switch back into its original position. Having been switched on, this machine has now fulfilled its sole function of switching itself off again.

This device — which is known as the Useless Machine, and more rarely as the Leave Me Alone Box — was conceived at Bell Laboratories in the early 1950s by the computer scientist Marvin Minsky, a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, who was at that point a grad student working a summer job. The first working model was constructed by his mentor, Claude Shannon, who later became known as the father of information theory. This context, the fact that the creators of this aggressively pointless gadget are emblematic figures in the ascendancy of machines over our contemporary world, lends a frisson of historical oddity to what is essentially an executive toy. — The New York Times

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