The Useless Machine

Over at The New York Times, Mark O’Connell talks about his Useless Machine, created by computer scientist Marvin Minsky in the 1950s at Bell Laboratories:

There is something charming, and even inspiring, in the paradoxical efficiency of this machine that does nothing, that fulfills its entire purpose by bluntly refusing to fulfill any purpose at all. When I reach over to flick the switch on my Useless Machine and then watch it rouse itself, with patient defiance, to switch itself off again, I wonder whether this is what it might mean for a technology to be truly intelligent: to receive an order and to respond by politely but firmly declining to follow it. The plain contradiction here, of course, is that in refusing to do what it’s told, the machine is stoically following its explicit commands. In this sense, the Useless Machine is like a battery-operated koan: a playfully profound riddle on the relationship between humans and technology, and on the nature of intelligence.

I think O’Connell shows us The Useless Machine is far from useless in the questions and thoughts it arouses in people who see and interact with it. Sometimes seemingly silly things can effect us profoundly.

The article also points out the other useful things that came out of Bell Laboratories: the transistor, the solar cell, the laser, and the UNIX operating system (which is the foundation of iOS and what Linux is based on).