Physicists have been haunted by the idea of Maxwell's demon for almost 150 years. The beast, conjured in a thought experiment by James Clerk Maxwell, sorts particles in a gas according to their speeds, thus transferring heat from the colder, evenly mixed gas to the region containing the hotter, high-speed particles. At first sight, the demon appears to violate the second law of thermodynamics. But the paradox can be resolved by realizing that work must be performed on the demon for it to do its job properly. This description isn’t entirely satisfying, however, as it introduces an external—not necessarily physical—entity to do work on the demon. Jukka Pekola and colleagues of Aalto University in Finland [1] have now exorcised such nonphysical beings by realizing a nanodevice equivalent to a Maxwell's demon (Fig. 1), but one whose operation doesn’t depend on an external entity. This so-called autonomous device, also known as an information machine, is completely self-contained. So far, autonomous demons have been a purely theoretical concept; this new experimental system provides a way to test formulations of fundamental axioms of thermodynamics and descriptions of information processing.

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