A useless machine is a device that performs a mostly useless task, such as switching itself off, performing no other practical function. In its modern form, the useless machine appears to have been invented by AI pioneer Marvin Minsky at Bell Labs in the 1950s, which he named the “ultimate machine” (Minsky also invented a “gravity machine” that would ring a bell if the gravitational constant were to change, a theoretical possibility that is not expected to occur in the foreseeable future). The device has also been called the “Leave Me Alone Box“.
Minsky’s mentor at Bell Labs, information theory pioneer Claude Shannon, made his own versions of the machine (similar to this one). He kept one on his desk, where science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke saw it, later writing:
There is something unspeakably sinister about a machine that does nothing — absolutely nothing — except switch itself off.
(see also: the Trammel of Archimedes a.k.a. the “do-nothing grinder”)