By KIM BELLARD
I’m paying close attention to strike by the Writers Guild Of America (WGA), which represents “Hollywood” writers. Oh, sure, I’m worried about the impact on my viewing habits, and I know the strike is really, as usual, about money, but what got my attention is that it’s the first strike I’m aware of where impact of AI on their jobs is one of the key issues.
It may or may not be the first time, but it’s certainly not going to be the last.
The WGA included this in their demands: “Regulate use of artificial intelligence on MBA-covered projects: AI can’t write or rewrite literary material; can’t be used as source material; and MBA-covered material can’t be used to train AI.” I.e., if something – a script, treatment, outline, or even story idea – warrants a writing credit, it must come from a writer. A human writer, that is.
John August, a screenwriter who is on the WGA negotiating committee, explained to The New York Times: “A terrible case of like, ‘Oh, I read through your scripts, I didn’t like the scene, so I had ChatGPT rewrite the scene’ — that’s the nightmare scenario,”
The studios, as represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), agree there is an issue: “AI raises hard, important creative and legal questions for everyone.” It wants both sides to continue to study the issue, but noted that under current agreement only a human could be considered a writer.
Still, though, we’ve all seen examples of AI generating remarkably plausible content. “If you have a connection to the internet, you have consumed AI-generated content,” Jonathan Greenglass, a tech investor, told The Washington Post. “It’s already here.” It’s easy to imagine some producer feeding an AI a bunch of scripts from prior instalments to come up with the next Star Wars, Marvel universe, or Fast and Furious release. Would you really know the difference?
Sure, maybe AI won’t produce a Citizen Kane or The Godfather, but, as Alissa Wilkinson wrote in Vox: “But here is the thing: Cheap imitations of good things are what power the entertainment industry. Audiences have shown themselves more than happy to gobble up the same dreck over and over.”
Still, though, all of Hollywood should be nervous. AI can already duplicate actors’ voices, and is getting good at generating digital images of them too. We’ve seen actors “de-aged,” and it’s only a matter of time before we see actors – living or dead – appearing in scenes they never actually shot. For that matter, we may not need camera operators, sound engineers, special effects experts, editors, gaffers, and the whole litany of people who also work on television shows and movies. That includes directors and producers.
The biggest barrier to more use of AI may not be AI capabilities or the WGA contract as it is that, under existing law, AI-generated works can’t be copyrighted, and the studios are going to be loathe to spend millions on something that doesn’t have that protection.
The AI jobs issue is not limited to Hollywood, of course. “Whether it’s music, photography, whatever the medium, there are creatives who are understandably and justifiably worried about the displacement of their livelihoods,” Ash Kernen, an entertainment and intellectual property attorney who focuses on new technology, told NBC News. And it’s much, much broader than that; for example, IBM says it is pausing hiring for jobs it thinks AI could do, impacting as many as 7,800 jobs already.
“There was an assumption in the past that if you were a professional your skills were always going to be needed,” Patricia Campos-Medina, executive director of Cornell University’s Worker Institute, told Politico. “Now we’re starting to see the same level of insecurity … other workers have had to deal with since the Industrial Revolution.”
If you are a “creative” worker, AI is coming for your job. If you are a knowledge worker, AI is coming for your job. If your job requires strength and/or skill, AI-powered robots will soon come for it too. Even if your job requires you to demonstrate empathy – like, say, doctors – AI is coming for it.
“I think almost every job will change as a result of AI,” Tom Davenport, a professor of information technology and management at Babson College, told WaPo. He added, though: “It doesn’t mean those jobs will go away.” As Andy Kessler writes in the WSJ: “Will artificial intelligence destroy jobs? As sure as night follows day. Old jobs disappear and new jobs are created all the time.”
Some companies are trying to get a jump on how to incorporate AI without necessarily eliminating jobs. A new study looked at a Fortune 500 company that incorporated generative AI in its customer service, and found it increased productivity by 14% on average, with the greatest impact on the least skilled and newest workers. Plus, the authors claim: “AI assistance improves customer sentiment, reduces requests for managerial intervention, and improves employee retention.” Who’s afraid of AI now?
Well, every worker should be, to some extent. Hollywood writers are lucky in that they have a union, and that union realizes there is an issue, but AI offers too much potential benefit to both the writers and the studios for them to try to keep AI away. They just have to figure out what is in their mutual best interest, which is not going to be easy.
Maybe you agree with the AMPTP that this is an important issue, deserving more study. Well, we don’t have the kind of time that study commissions usually take. We do need guardrails and even legislation – such as around privacy, fake information, and intellectual property – but the AI genie is already escaping the bottle.
Your job may not have a union, and you and your coworkers may not have had the time or expertise to really think about what AI might do to those jobs. Someone else will figure out the technology, we often tell ourselves, but that someone may not care about the impact on you, the person in that job. But here’s the bottom line: if you can’t figure out how AI can enhance your job, chances are that AI will replace it.
As for strikes, I’m more worried than once AI figures out what we do to some people, in health care and more generally, they’ll be the ones to go on strike.