Artificial Intelligence: The Golden Calf and The Golem Combined Into One

25 June 2024

Alex Gavrish is founder of Etalon Capital Ltd and author of the book “Investing: From Science To Art”

The field of artificial intelligence reminds of a Jewish myth of Golem. In his book “On the Kaballah and its Symbolism” Gershom Scholem presents this legend in its late Jewish form (as described in 1808 by Jacob Grimm):

“…After saying certain prayers and observing certain fast days, the Polish Jews make the figure of a man from clay or mud, and when they pronounce the miraculous Shemhamphoras (the name of God) over him, he must come to life. He cannot speak, but he understands fairly well what is said or commanded. They call him golem and use him as a servant to do all sorts of housework. But he must never leave the house. On his forehead is written “emeth” (truth); every day he gains weight and becomes somewhat larger and stronger than all the others in the house, regardless of how little he was to begin with. For fear of him, they therefore erase the first letter, so that nothing remains but “meth” (he is dead), whereupon he collapses and turns to clay again. But one man’s golem once grew so tall, and he heedlessly let him keep on growing so long that he could no longer reach his forehead. In terror he ordered the servant to take off his boots, thinking that when he bent down, he could reach his forehead. So it happened, and the first letter was successfully erased, but the whole heap of clay fell on the Jew and crushed him…”

A statue of the Prague Golem created for the film The Emperor and the Golem. Michal Maňas, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Common

A statue of the Prague Golem created for the film The Emperor and the Golem. Michal MaňasCC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Common

Scholem explains that this myth is related to Adam, the first man. Because a man who created a golem is in some sense competing with God’s creation of Adam. The creative power of man enters into a relationship, whether of emulation or antagonism, with the creative power of God.

In a 2023 Vatican meeting and in his message for the 2024 World Day of Peace, Pope Francis called for nations to create and adopt a binding international treaty that regulates the development and use of AI.

The risks and dangers of artificial intelligence development and progress are widely debated, and many believe that our inability to control AI will cause an existential catastrophe.

In October 2023, U.S. President Joe Biden issued an executive order on the “Safe, Secure, and Trustworthy Development and Use of Artificial Intelligence”. Alongside other requirements, the order mandates the development of guidelines for AI models that permit the “evasion of human control”.

The issue is not overlooked in the investment management world as well, and many are worried about the extremely high concentration and large weight of tech stocks in the S&P 500 Index for example.

The possibility of AI or Golem getting out of control will probably be addressed in one way or the other by governments and businesses.

But the myth about Golem is also tied in ancient sources to the warning against idolatry. In one version of the myth the Golem himself speaks and warns man that he should destroy him and not create another man, lest the world succumb to idolatry.

Speaking about idolatry one cannot refrain from drawing a parallel between Biblical story of the Golden Calf and Nvidia founder’s presentations on stage, presenting new AI equipment and chips in his fashionable leather jacket.

The truth is he is not too original in this – the credit for these cult-style “performances” on stage should probably go to Apple’s Steve Jobs.

But the closeness to idolatry is visible with the naked eye. The only thing that remains is for presentation listeners to stand with their knees on the ground and bow in awe and respect.

The bull market in shares of Nvidia rhymes well with this Golden Calf idea as well. Judging by Nvidia share price performance, its shares turned into a little Golden Calf a long time ago.

Damien Hirst’s sculpture Golden Calf was sold for about GBP 10 million at Sotheby’s 2008 auction. The work featured a bull calf in formaldehyde solution.

I do not know why Damien Hirst decided to create his “Golden Calf” sculpture, but I think one of the reasons might be the desire to emphasize or symbolize that the Biblical Golden Calf incident is not only some religious distant past event but is very much a part (unfortunately) of our modern life.

It might be not a bad idea to take some AI chips from Nvidia and put them into formaldehyde solution as well.

Adoration of the Golden Calf by Andrea di Lione. Andrea di Leone, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Jewish myth about the Golem teaches us two things.

First, that although certain things initially look innocent, unharmful and useful (artificial intelligence), they can turn out to be nuclear bombs in disguise.

The second message is that in order to make sure you do not create a monster with your own hands, it is important to wake up – before it becomes too late.

And speaking about the Golden Calf or little Golden Calfs we need to make sure that all this progress does not bring us degradation as opposed to progress.

While you think about this, you can enjoy Rembrandt’s painting “Moses with the Ten Commandments”:

“Moses with the Ten Commandments”, Rembrandt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Rembrandt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Alex Gavrish is founder of Etalon Capital Ltd and author of the book “Investing: From Science To Art”

Etalon Capital, Inc. provides independent research with a focus on event-driven value equities to institutional investors. Events include M&As, spin-offs, activist investors, IPOs, SPACs, buybacks, recapitalizations, asset sales, hedge fund holdings, and other significant corporate transactions. These are diversified by sources of risk as well as risk/return profiles. We generate an edge with a unique research process, combining value, focus on corporate events, and story investing principles.