AI or Magic: History & Conclusions (pt. 2)

5 min readDec 12, 2023

by Peter Nilsson, Aptonym

For part 1 of this post, where we discuss the lessons within the classic Disney animated short film The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the questions they pose about our relationship with AI, click here.

The History

The questions at the conclusion of part 1 (Who are we in the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice? Do we understand the magic we wield with AI, and can we set limits on it?) are also as old as history. Some of the earliest versions of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice tale — they go back millennia — prompt questions that resonate today.

Commonly attributed to a poem by Goethe from 1797 and a score by French composer Paul Dukas from 1897, the origins of the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” stretch even further back. The 2017 work of scholarship The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: An Anthology of Magical Tales by Jack Zipes, professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, traces the history of the folktale through 56 variations back to two archetypes from the first centuries AD. The Roman poet Ovid in 8 AD records the story of a rebellious apprentice archetype in “Erysichthon and Mestra,” and the Syrian satirist Lucian of Samosata circa 170 AD records the first known tale of the humiliated apprentice archetype in “Eucrates and Pancrates.”

Lucian’s version is the clear origin of the one we know. In it, the narrator Eucrates recounts serving a master Pancrates, who guards his magic jealously. But Eucrates overhears Pancrates uttering magic words to animate a pestle, making it move in the form of a man and carry buckets of water. So when Pancrates is next out at the village square, Eucrates tries it himself:

“One day I secretly overheard the spell — it was just three syllables — by taking my stand in a dark place. He went off to the square after telling the pestle what it had to do, and on the next day, while he was transacting some business in the square, I took the pestle, dressed it up in the same way, said the syllables over it, and told it to carry water. When it had filled and brought in the jar, I said, ‘Stop! Don’t carry any more water. Be a pestle again!’

“But it would not obey me now; it kept straight on carrying until it filled the house with water for us by pouring it in! At my wit’s end over the thing, for I feared that Pancrates might come back and be angry, as was indeed the case, I took an axe and cut the pestle in two; but each part took a jar and began to carry water, with the result that instead of one servant I had now two.

Pancrates returns and is furious, of course, but the story isn’t about Pancrates. It’s about Eucrates recounting this incident to a crowd. They ask if he can perform the magic again. When he says that he can, but only halfway because he cannot turn the pestle back to its original form, the crowd grows restless. One attendee Tychiades, skeptical of it all, retorts:

Will you never stop telling such buncombe?For the sake of these lads put your amazing and fearful tales off to some other time, so that they may not be filled up with terrors and strange figments before we realize it. You ought to be easy with them and not accustom them to hear things like this that will abide with them and annoy them their lives long and will make them afraid of every sound by filling them with all sorts of superstition.”

Tychiades calls it superstition. But surely it is no longer. Now we have (magical) machines that can do the work of many people. And while once it was physical feats that machines could do, now it is cognitive feats, too. It even seems to be encroaching on spirituality, an adjacent domain to Tychiades’ superstition.

The Conclusions

So we are filled with superstition, indeed. And we continue playing with magic. And this all might be ok in the end. Eucrates learned his lesson — when asked to perform the magic, he says, “if it once becomes a water carrier… we shall be obliged to let the house be flooded with the water that is poured in!” His lesson is much like the cautionary words of Mustafa Suleyman, founder of Inflection AI, in an interview with the Center for Human Technology: “The challenge for the next century is going to be what we don’t do rather than what we do.” Perhaps we can learn this lesson, too. But what does that look like in practice, and how do we learn it collectively?

These are still unknowns. These are the essential discussions for us and for our students today. In order to harness the creative capacity of artificial intelligence and prevent its destructive potential — whether that means preventing harmful biases or preventing life-risking emergent abilities — we have an obligation to talk with each other about the magic that our sorcerers are conjuring around the world.

I’m optimistic. These are the kinds of rich questions that live at the heart of the humanities. What is the relationship between humans and machines? How do we center the human experience in an increasingly digitized world? Further, in the face of evolving technology, what responsibilities do we have to each other in society to ensure the benefits are equitably experienced? As machines increasingly adopt human characteristics, how do we further understand what is unique about the human experience?

Still, technology in the world has real consequences. When these “emergent abilities” are as vast as they are today, it’s important to look at the chasm we are leaping over. Or into.

Peter Nilsson is a Senior Consultant with Aptonym.

His experience includes independent school leadership and teaching positions, among other innovative roles focused on innovation in education. He is the founder of Athena, a resource and collaboration hub for teachers, and is the editor and curator of the newsletter The Educator’s Notebook. Peter also serves on the Advisory Board for SXSWedu and the Center for Curriculum Redesign.

In his own words, Peter is “an educator committed to learning and making the world a better place.” Connect with Peter on LinkedIn.

This post was originally published in its entirety on Sense and Sensation.