The brain and the Ultimate Machine

Kevin Kelly wrote a great post called ‘The (Unspeakable) Ultimate Machine’.

In it he describes a sinister machine whose only function is to turn itself off.

It was invented by Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, and first described by the science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke:

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.

(From a biography of Shannon by N.J.A. Sloane and A.D. Wyner, and quoted in Kelly’s post).

Amazingly, Bell Labs actually made a handful of these machines in the 1950s. They look tremendous:

(Pictures from the splendid Kugelbahn blog)

Since then, any number of people have built their own. This isn’t one of Bell’s, but it works just the same way.


The brain and the Ultimate Machine

A few days after coming across this post, I was trying to figure out a new approach to a problem with the game my team and I were building.

I was really struggling to concentrate. Each time I got to the point of grappling with a difficult aspect of the problem, I felt a sudden impulse to check my emails, tap my phone to see if I’d missed any calls, or check on Facebook, or read up on the latest news.

None of those distractions were helping much.

For some reason, I just couldn’t bring myself to tackle this particularly tricky problem.

It struck me that, just like the machine, my brain was switching itself off each time I tried to switch it on.

Seth Godin calls this the lizard brain – the part of the brain that fights against anything risky, that tells you to go slow, that always advocates compromise and taking the safer option.

But I think that, as computers become an extension of our selves and the boundary between man and machine dissolves, a mechanical metaphor is more appropriate.

The brain will try to shut itself down when you challenge it in the wrong way or in the wrong circumstances.

Figuring out how to jam the switch so that it stays on for as long as you need it is a problem well worth solving.



Kevin Kelly is one of my favourite writers. The Technium, one of his many blogs, is a deep and wonderful collection of work.

Seth Godin has done a lot of work on the idea of the lizard brain over the past couple of years. Linchpin is particularly insightful, and a challenging read in the best possible way – when you read it, you know you should be doing better.

The Kugelbahn website describes itself better than I possibly could as a site “devoted to the subject of Kinetic Art, Rolling Ball Sculptures, Automata, weird machines and wooden and paper mechanics”. I only discovered it recently via Kevin Kelly’s link, but the blog has been going for years and there are all manner of crazy videos on there.

Finally – it’s my Mum’s birthday today. She’s doing a PhD in computer science and knows a lot about machine learning, so this one’s for her. Happy birthday Mum xxx.

Author: toddmgreen

I really like making internet projects. I work on apps, games and websites at a TV company. I write stuff, make stuff, and accidentally break stuff. You should probably follow me on Twitter - @toddmgreen.

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