The Most Useless Book Scanner

How do artificial intelligences get so intelligent? The same way we do, they get a library card and head on over to read up on their favorite topics. Or at least that’s the joke that [Jakob Werner] is playing with in his automaton art piece, “A Machine Learning” (Google translated here).

Simulating a reading machine, a pair of eyeballs on stalks scan left-right and slowly work their way down the page as another arm swings around and flips to the next one. It’s all done with hand-crafted wooden gears, in contrast to the high-tech subject matter. It’s an art piece, and you can tell that [Jakob] has paid attention to how it looks. (The all-wooden rollers are sweet.) But it’s also a “useless machine” with a punch-line.

Is it a Turing test? How can we tell that the machine isn’t reading? What about “real” AIs? Are they learning or do they just seem to be? OK, Google’s DeepMind is made of silicon and electricity instead of wood, but does that actually change anything? It’s art, so you get license to think crazy thoughts like this.

We’ve covered a few, less conceptual, useless machines here. Here is one of our favorite. Don’t hesitate to peruse them all.

Marvin Minsky, AI Pioneer, Dies at 88

Marvin Minsky, one of the early pioneers of neural networks, died on Sunday at the age of 88.

The obituary in the Washington Post paints a fantastic picture of his life. Minsky was friends with Richard Feynman, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Stanley Kubrick. He studied under Claude Shannon, worked with Alan Turing, had frequent conversations with John Von Neumann, and had lunch with Albert Einstein.

“Single layer ann” by Mcstrother

Minsky’s big ideas were really big. He built one of the first artificial neural networks, but was aiming higher — toward machines that could actually think rather than simply classify data. This was one of the driving forces behind his book, Perceptrons, that showed some of the limitations in the type of neural networks (single-layer, feedforward) that were being used at the time. He wanted something more.

Minsky’s book The Society of Mind is interesting because it reframes the problem of human thought from being a single top-down process to being a collaboration between many different brain regions, the nervous system, and indeed the body as a whole. This “connectionist” theme would become influential both in cognitive science and in robotics.

In short, Minksy was convinced that complex problems often had necessarily complex solutions. In research projects, he was in for the long-term, and encouraged a bottom-up design procedure where many smaller elements combined into a complicated whole. “The secret of what something means lies in how it connects to other things we know. That’s why it’s almost always wrong to seek the “real meaning” of anything. A thing with just one meaning has scarcely any meaning at all.”

useless_machine-shot0005Minsky was a very deep thinker, but he kept grounded by also being a playful inventor. Minsky is credited with inventing the “ultimate machine” which would pop up in modern geek culture and shared numerous times on Hackaday as the “most useless machine”. He inspired Claude Shannon to build one. Arthur C. Clarke said, “There is something unspeakably sinister about a machine that does nothing — absolutely nothing — except switch itself off.”

He also co-designed the Triadex Muse, which was an early synthesizer and sequencer and “automatic composer” that creates fairly complex and original patterns with minimal input. It’s an obvious offshoot of his explorations in artificial intelligence, and on our bucket list of must-play-with electronic instruments.

Minsky’s web site at MIT has a number of his essays, and the full text of “The Society of Mind”, all available for your reading pleasure. It’s worth a bit of your time, not just in memoriam of a great thinker and a wacky inventor, but also because we bet you’ll see the world a little bit differently afterwards. That’s a legacy that lasts.

The Annoying Machine

The Useless Machine – a machine with a toggle switch, a mechanical arm, and something that only exists to turn itself off – is a staple of Instructables and builds from random workbenches the world over. It’s cliché, and now has a better project: The Annoying Machine, a machine that exists purely to annoy.

According to [unigamer], the Annoying Machine is the evil cousin of the Useless Machine. On the outside, it’s extremely simple: a switch labeled ‘on’ and ‘off’, and a hole for an LED. Turn the switch on, and the Annoying Machine will emit an annoying buzzing sound. Switch the Machine off, and the buzzing will go away. Then the switch will flick itself back to on. Insidious.

A switch and buzzer is easy enough, but the key component of this build is an actuated rocker switch. It’s basically a normal toggle switch with two additional terminals for a coil that can move the switch back and forth electronically. Throw in an Arduino, buzzer, battery, and a boost converter for the switch, and that’s just about all there is to it.

How to deactivate the Annoying Machine? There’s an accelerometer attached to the Arduino, and by throwing the box up in the air after flicking the switch off, it will reset. There are already plans for a Version 2 of the Annoying Machine that will be even louder and made out of aluminum. Anything to protect it from the inevitable hammers of frustration.

Video below.

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This Useless Machine Now Plays with Fire

The Useless Machine, Candle Edition

Useless machines are a lot of fun, if not just a little overdone. Looking for a new twist, [bd594] decided to try making one that integrates a candle — it works quite well!

While not quite as impressive as some of [bd594’s] previous projects, like his rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody on old school computer equipment, we like how he used regular DC motors in this design, instead of servos (the easy way).

A PICAXE14M2 microcontroller controls the H-Bridge responsible for the geared DC motors (taken from a Mac floppy drive), and a light sensor checks for the flame. He’s also made use of some NPN transistors to invert some logic levels to show you if you’re running low on I/O pins, its always possible to incorporate some other discrete components like a transistor to achieve your design.

Among others, some great alternative spins on the “useless machine” include the moody useless machine, an even more useless machine (featuring 8 switches!), a pull-string version, and even a rather ridiculous elevator button pressing useless machine!

Stick around to see this one put out the candle (Caution: Very exciting).

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Moody Useless Machine

If you ever get bored of trolling the internet seeking inspiration for your next big project, try a YouTube search of “useless machine”. After a few hours of watching these pointless, yet hilarious creations, we’re sure you’re going to want to build one. Luckily for us, [Arvid] documented the design of his moody useless machine to get you started.

Why is [Arvid’s] machine moody? Well, to fully appreciate the emotional sensitivity of a useless machine, you first need to understand what it is they do don’t do. A one sentence explanation is all that is needed here; you flip a switch and the machine flips the switch back… that’s it. [Arvid] implemented a two servo system with a stand-alone Arduino, which allowed him to give his machine a “personality”. Sometimes the switch is thrown back quickly without argument, other times the machine throws a fussy tantrum.

Although the machine is useless, the electronics inside are anything but. To keep everything clean and innocuous looking, the machine is powered by batteries, so [Arvid] places the Arduino into a ‘sleep’ mode until the switch is toggled. The switch is configured as an interrupt on the Arduino, which when toggled, wakes the Arduino.  Once the Arduino is awake, it enables power to the servos via a power MOSFET, then everything’s ready to go; the machine makes its response and goes back to ‘sleep’. This was a great project, but believe it or not, things can get more useless, like with this advanced useless machine.

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An even more useless machine

Here’s the most useless machine we’ve seen so far. It comes from the workshop of [forn4x] and happily turns itself off whenever any one of its eight switches are flicked to the on position.

The build began when [forn]’s Canon 850i printer gave up the ghost because of a broken print head. All the other electronics and mechanics were still salvageable, so it was decided to turn this printer into something a little more useless.

The printer used a regular DC motor with an optical encoder to move the print head. [forn] easily found the schematics for this optical sensor, because of the TTL output was able to read out the position of the slider. The rest of the build is an ATMega8, a servo, and an octet of toggle switches. [forn] has been able to get the accuracy of the servo-controlled arm down to about 0.1 mm, more than enough to accurately turn all its switches off.

You can see [forn]’s most useless machine in action after the break.

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A Clockwork Useless Machine Prototype


Most of us have seen the [Useless Machine] where a switch is flipped and a finger comes out to turn it off, retreating into it’s box again. Most of those are electrical, but why not a [Useless Machine] made only of mechanical clockwork? Apparently this has been done before, but why not one more?

After some rough, sketches, and almost no research, I finally “came up with” a way to do this mechanically. A small wheel acts as the driver for the assembly, which is weighed down by a T-handle attached to a string wrapped around it. When released, this smaller wheel fully rotates causing the larger wheel to rotate up around ninety degrees then come down again. In reality, the flipped switch doesn’t reverse the motion of the finger at all, it instead stops it from cycling over and over. The video after the break may explain it a bit better.

This machine currently is a prototype. Although it works well without a lid on at simply reversing the switch, it’s much too fast and isn’t capable of lifting any sort of weight. Like a lid to come out of, for instance. This whole assembly was made possible with my CNC router and inexpensive/easily machineable MDF. Continue reading “A Clockwork Useless Machine Prototype”