- Arthur C. Clarke, in Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible (1962)
When I uploaded to ChatGPT a picture of my family taken at a screening of Taylor Swift’s “Eras” Tour, and asked ChatGPT simply to “write a poem about the attached picture,” and when it returned to me a sonnet accurately describing my wife and children wearing “Swiftie” shirts in front of a poster of the singer herself, capturing the mix of love, fandom, and family, I couldn’t help but pause to appreciate what an incredible time we are living in. Today’s technology might as well be magic.
I’ve been thinking recently about another magical moment, too: Disney’s 1940 release of Fantasia, which includes the nine-minute, short film “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The animated film recently celebrated its 80th anniversary, but the story is actually much, much older. And in its age, it serves as a timeless cautionary tale for the dangers of playing with magic.
For those who have not seen Mickey Mouse’s escapade in the Sorcerer’s lab, the short animated film is viewable for free at Disney Video at the link above. To summarize it without the video, I’ve included frames from the film below. The action unfolds as follows:
Mickey Mouse is the apprentice to a powerful sorcerer.
His job is to fill buckets with water from one well and pour them into another well.
One day, the powerful sorcerer grows tired, leaves for the day, and leaves his magical hat behind.
You can guess where this goes.
Mickey puts on the hat, and charms a broom.
He makes it grow arms.
He teaches it to do his work.
Mickey, in his leisure now, then falls asleep.
He dreams of great power.
He awakens to find the sorcerer’s workroom flooded.
The broom filled the well and kept going. So Mickey tries to stop the broom.
But he finds he does not have the power.
In desperation, Mickey grabs an axe and chops the broom to splinters.
But the magic of the broom transforms each wood splinter into a new broom.
Now, the army of brooms fills their buckets and keeps overflowing the well, flooding the lab.
Just when all is almost lost, the sorcerer returns.
Furious, he dispels the magic and clears the water — even without the hat.
Mickey shamefully returns the hat.
Mickey tries to make amends, but ultimately picks up the buckets and hands the broom back. And the sorcerer sweeps him out of the lab, notably, with the broom, the very object Mickey had enchanted.
Each frame could be a discussion here.
At it’s heart, the tale is clearly a cautionary one. “Don’t play with magic you don’t understand," it tells us. But what further nuance can be drawn from this, especially in relation to our current moment with artificial intelligence?
I think of it as a story of unintended consequences: Mickey’s clear instructions to the broom only partially play out the way he hopes. The brooms don’t stop when the well is full, so the well overflows. Then, destroying the broom creates more brooms, compounding the problem and flooding the entire laboratory.
The source of the disaster is because of three shortcomings on Mickey’s part. First, Mickey does not set boundaries on his work like the sorcerer does; he doesn’t give the broom instructions for when the task is done. Second, Mickey is unaware of the nature of the magic he wields; he does not realize that new brooms will grow from each of the splinters. And third, Mickey is careless; he doesn’t pay attention to what he has created, and he falls asleep at work.
The story and circumstance raise provocative questions when we consider them in our context:
Who are we in the story? And who are the other characters?
- Are we the sorcerer, with our students and our children as the apprentices playing with artificial intelligence? Or are we Mickey, the eager apprentice, playing with something beyond our command? Or are we actually the broom, an everyday object enchanted with magic and marching along to someone else’s dubious direction?
- But then who are the tech companies making these magical tools? Are they the sorcerer, carefully commanding and shaping new magic? Or are they actually Mickey, playing with the magical properties of physics, mathematics, electricity, and the universe? Who — or what — then would be the sorcerer, and how might we then interpret the sorcerer’s intervention at the end?
Do we understand the magic we wield?
- Do we as consumers know how artificial intelligence works? Do we know its limits? If we turn it on, do we know how to turn it off? What would that look like for us as educators, parents, or citizens?
- And what about the tech companies? Do they understand the tools they are creating? Even the developers of the generative AI tools we are using today were surprised by what they can do. There is even a term used in the tech field — “emergent abilities” — to describe capabilities that designers did not anticipate. What does this suggest about their own command of their creations?
- Further, there is a polarizing debate unfolding today in public over the scale of risks of artificial intelligence. The facts of this debate are contested, but the fact that the debate is happening exposes the uncertainty in the designers of the technology themselves.
Can we set boundaries on our magic?
- This is perhaps the most practical of the main questions. And perhaps this can drive us to the most constructive questions. The sorcerer in the film is shown to take great care with the magic that he experiments with. He appears to command it with responsibility and seriousness. How can we emulate this? How much power do we have over the technology that we are using? How responsible and serious are the creators of our artificial intelligence today?
- And how do we analogize the sorcerer’s very prudent decision to restrict his apprentice Mickey from using the same magic? Should magic be in the hands of apprentices? Who are the apprentices? Students? Citizens? Specific countries?
These are ethical, social, and professional questions that drive us to consider how we might most responsibly engage our new world. And they are questions that our students are hungry to engage, too.
These questions 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-Hellenic 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 named Tychiades is skeptical of it all and 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.”
In the original tale, one can ask whether Eucrates’ story is meant to be believed or whether it is meant as entertainment. But today, it's not a question of fantasy or reality; this new technology already exists. We already 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. Tychiades calls it superstition. Today, it is even encroaching on spirituality.
The reality of our present technology makes it more than superstition. And while good has already come from it, there remain risks. How large? These are yet to be known. We increasingly hear about extinction level risks that leaders in A.I. and government are proclaiming. Are these “buncombe,” filling our heads with fears and superstitions? Or should we be as circumspect in our experimenting as the sorcerer in the tale?
If we follow the ancient version of the tale, 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?
Today's many unknowns prompt essential discussions for us and for our students. 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. The questions raised here are not a comprehensive look at the risk brought about by A.I., but they offer meaningful starting points.
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?
These questions will take a long time for us to answer, and it's best if we bring our students into the discussion. We're at the beginning of a new world that they will be inheriting. They should have a part in shaping it. I look forward to exploring with you and with them.