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Marvin Minsky on Making the ‘Most Stupid Machine of All’

The late father of artificial intelligence went on camera to describe how he created the most useless machines ever made.

Daniel Oberhaus

Daniel Oberhaus

On Sunday, mathematician, computer scientist and the father of artificial intelligence Marvin Minsky passed away, claimed by a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 88.

Minsky will be remembered as a lot of things, but whether it is as the philosopher-scientist who was so captivated by the nature of the human mind during his student days as Harvard, or the piano virtuoso capable of improvising fugues, few things so beautifully capture the essence of Minsky's creativity and scientific curiosity as his useless machines.

In this video, Minsky recalls how he came up with the idea for the "ultimate machine" while doing graduate work at Bell Labs in 1952. This machine was contained in a box with a switch on top of the box. When the switch was moved to the "ON" position, a hand would emerge from the box and switch the machine to "OFF." It was a perfectly useless device, or as Minsky puts it in the video while holding back a smile, "people thought it was the most useless machine ever made so far."

Here is a GIF of a useless machine.

Minsky devoted a decent portion of his time at Bell Labs "inventing useless things" (including a gravity bell which was made so that it would ring if the force of gravity ever changed). As Minsky describes in the video, his enterprise greatly humored Claude Shannon, so the pioneer of information theory decided to make his own useless machine. Shannon displayed his Minsky-inspired useless machine on the desk in his office and it would always pique the interest of his visitors, especially renowned science fiction author Arthur C Clarke. As Clarke would later write of his encounter with Shannon's useless machine: "There is something unspeakably sinister about a machine that does nothing—absolutely nothing—except switch itself off."

Ironically, it is not Minsky's useless machines that are now viewed as sinister, but rather the (possibly hostile) development of the artificial intelligence he helped create. Nevertheless, the development of AI, which Minsky though would one day surpass human intelligence, is proceeding at an unprecedented rate, and even Minsky's useless machines have attracted a small cult of engineers striving for ever more useless machines.

As machines come to control evermore aspects of our lives, one can't help but marvel at the beautiful nihilism of a machine that, far from world domination, only wants to turn itself off.