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The strange joy of useless machines

Leave me alone.

I read a great theory once, arguing that the universe is elegantly wasteful. Is it even possible to be both wasteful and elegant? Whatever: when the universe wants to do something, according to this theory, it gets the job done, but it gets it done in the way that will use up the most energy. If the universe wants to get over a wall, it doesn't build a ladder, it builds a jetpack.

And I happen to like jetpacks, so I was pretty much okay with this idea, terrifying as the ramifications are. If you're an awful wretch it even lets you off the hook a bit. Why try to conserve anything when all the universe wants to do is retreat, to slump, to return to zero?

The article I read that explained this theory had a load of cool examples, none of which I remember quite as well as the main argument they supported. There was something to do with the way cells of bubbles form when water is boiling, and probably something else to do with neutron stars, as they always rear their cosmic heads in this kind of thing. My own favourite personal example, though - and I'm probably bending the theory a little to reach this point - is the 'useless machine': a great name for a great invention. A great invention that does absolutely nothing.

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Even that is not quite true. When you switch on a useless machine - these are sometimes also called ultimate machines, or even leave-me-alone boxes - it does precisely one thing with great ingenuity and deliberation: it switches itself off again. The classic useless machine is a box, containing the brilliant workings, with an on/off switch and a hatch on one side. You turn the machine on and the box begins to judder with hidden industry. Slowly, the hatch opens and a hand emerges. The hand reaches the switch, flicks it off, and makes its retreat with the last of its energy. Then the hatch closes.

Much philosophical bedwetting follows. It would be so easy to write the useless machine off as, well, a useless machine - a mindless piece of flim-flam, an icon of sheer redundancy. But remember, the useless machine, in this form at least, was proposed by the great Marvin Minsky of MIT. If you're unfamiliar with his work, all you really need to know is that he's one of the pioneers of AI research. The entire field.

Even more devastatingly, Minsky's supervisor was so enamoured with his creation that he started to make his own, and this supervisor was the even greater Claude Shannon, the shining light behind information theory. You'll know his work if you've ever used the word bit in the context of units of information. Shannon coined that playful, and entirely appropriate, term, amongst other achievements that I struggle to entirely comprehend.

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What I really love about useless machines, then, is that they pose some very tricky questions about what clever, industrious people like to do with their spare time. The useless machine isn't just a device that has no real utility, it's a device that goes out of its way to prove that very point. It is gratuitous and inverted brilliance, a winking emoticon lurking at the burning centre of the galaxy. All it does is turn itself off. And yet, is that really all it does? Isn't there some rogue thrill on offer - some pleasure generated - by the simple act of seeing it in motion? You're in on the joke, sure, but the joke is so gloriously elaborate, so finely realised, so elegant in its wastefulness, that it almost reaches transcendence?

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Many thanks to Chris Bratt for this lovely gif.

I wonder if everybody sees something different in the useless machine: whether one of its unusual, um, uses, is as a kind of mirror. Arthur C. Clarke, the astonishingly industrious sci-fi writer, was terrified by the useless machine. He thought he glimpsed something endlessly sinister - death and defeat? - in its self-cancelling motions. I read his book on the making of 2001 recently, mind, and his impulse throughout that movie's creation was to explain absolutely everything that happened, to rob the film of its awesome numinous rumbling and chuck in a tidy upper-middle-class alien named Clindar to wrap everything up. Of course he hated the useless machine. He looked to the universe to see underlying order, to see productivity writ across the stars..

For me, at least, the useless machine has a very clear positive use. The useless machine is a concrete way of exploring the idea that there can be a strange kind of utility to things that very clearly have no utility. Or perhaps it's cleaner to just say that the useless machine reminds me that we often assign importance in odd ways. Maybe the ultimate machine is the right name after all.

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