As a kid, I’ve enjoyed stories in which inanimate objects suddenly came to life, either through magic or with the help of science. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example. Or that old Jewish myth of the Golem: A figure, formed of clay, is brought to life by a Rabbi in order to liberate the holy man of his most tedious chores. No more cooking, cleaning, chopping wood, or carrying water. More time instead for leisure, study, and prayer. But, as with Frankenstein’s monster, that endeavor doesn’t end well for either of them: The Golem eventually turns against its creator in a fury of destructive violence—before finally being shut down.

This ancient story echoes humanity’s persistent desire to get rid of manual labour, a theme common in many cultures, though interestingly not in all (as we shall see). Another example, one that may be more familiar for anyone educated in a German-speaking country, is Goethe’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice which conveys the same timeless lesson: “Be mindful of what you wish for, as it might actually come true.”

Today, using Generative AI to speed up the creative process can elicit a similar sentiment. It may not involve overflowing buckets of water or murderous zombies, but rather endless pages of auto-generated text (and images) pouring down across your screen. As modern-day sorcerer’s apprentices, we now have the capability to create so much more, so much faster, and—arguably—in higher quality. But, one is tempted to ask, what are we giving up in the process?

Consider Joan Didiot’s beautiful reflection on writing: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking.” Aren’t we forfeiting the tremendously rewarding activity of thinking for its own sake when we’re opting for the shortcut offered by AI: The quick and efficient result of a lot of text neatly organized on a page?

The Golem was originally created to automate more toilsome tasks than thinking, such as chopping wood and carrying water. And of course, it was capable of chopping much more wood and carrying much more water than a mere mortal. However, what if that also turned out to be besides the point?

While neat stacks of firewood may be a satisfying result of a morning of intense labour, what machines will never be able to replicate are any of the profound, moment-to-moment experiences elicited from actually doing that work. Without consciousness, the Golem can neither take pleasure in sensing the weight or the balance of the axe, nor softly run a thumb along its edge and appreciate the craftsmanship that went into sharpening the blade. It couldn’t feel the tingling of muscles strained to the maximum of their capacity, or the exaltation of having pushed one’s mortal body beyond what one had beforehand thought to be its limit.

Similarly, I take a lot of delight in the intellectual exertion that goes with the act of “thinking” as I’m writing. Sure, prompting ChatGPT for a 500-word essay on the topic of the Golem in connection with AI would have spared me the hassle of assembling this article. But that would also have deprived my mind of many enriching, pleasing, flow-like moments. That magical feeling of words which suddenly fall into place, one after the other, and slowly start make sense, for example. Appreciating the rhythm of a sentence or a paragraph just as its emerging as out of nowhere. Noticing and deepening the connections between topics that had been simmering on my mental back-burner for weeks or months, and organizing them in a—somewhat—coherent structure. Finding out, as Didiot put it, what I’m actually thinking.

Interestingly, in many Buddhist traditions the particular chores that the Golem was designed to eliminate, chopping wood and carrying water, are held up as examples of activities that should be performed slowly, mindfully, and thus enjoyed for purely their own sake. Buddhist monks, I guess, would shudder at the thought of having those tasks taken away from them by an unconscious Golem. Recent advances in AI have rekindled the philosophical discussion about what exactly it is that sets “us” humans apart from them, “the machines”. Our unique ability to cherish the journey more than the destination, as well as to take pleasure in whatever we experience in the moment, may just turn out to be some of these things.