The Ultimate Machine
Youtube has given new life to Claude Shannon’s ‘Ultimate Machine’. One of the videos, seen by 6.499.191 viewers as I write, showing a reconstruction of Shannons invention, has been nicknamed «The most useless machine», a dysphemism I disagree with.
Nothing could be simpler. It is merely a small wooden casket, the size and shape of a cigar box, with a single switch on one face. When you throw the switch, there is an angry, purposeful buzzing. The lid slowly rises, and from beneath it emerges a hand. The hand reaches down, turns the switch off and retreats into the box. With the finality of a closing coffin, the lid snaps shut, the buzzing ceases and peace reigns once more. The psychological effect, if you do not know what to expect, is devastating. There is something unspeakably sinister about a machine that does nothing — absolutely nothing — except switch itself off.
– Arthur C. Clarke, The Ultimate Machine, Harper’s Aug. 1958 (1)
Shannon (1916-2001) was an American mathematician, elctronic engineer, and cryptographer, known as the father of «Information theory» (3). The ‘Ultimate Machine’ was inspired by Marvin Minsky, a cognitive scientist in the field of Artificial Intelligence (4).
How can someone possibly think this useless when, with the simplest visual and mechanical language, it manages to touch upon so many existential subjects; the human condition vs artificial life, freedom of choice, fatality, life death? And yet, it is such a humoristic little thing. I especially enjoy the video above (minus the title), which is a more abstracted version of Shannon’s original (but you can find a whole bunch of different re-designs on youtube if you’re interested).
(1) Arthur C. Clarke, The Ultimate Machine, Harper’s Aug.1958, quoted in Scott Horton. 2008. Clarke’s ultimate Machine. Harper’s Magazine Online: March 19, 2008. Available from URL http://harpers.org/archive/2008/03/hbc-90002682 [Downloaded 2011-11-29].
(2) Kevin Kelly. The (Unspeakable) Ultimate Machine. Available from URL http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2008/03/the_unspeakable.php [Downloaded 2011-11-29].
(3) Wikipedia.org. Claude Shannon. Available from URL http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_Shannon [Downloaded 2011-11-29].
(4) Wikipedia.org. Marvin Minsky. Available from URL http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marvin_Minsky [Downloaded 2011-11-29].