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AI implications of writers’ strike go beyond Hollywood
HOLD THIS THOUGHT
If you watch late-night television or exist on the internet, you’ve likely already heard the news that the Writers Guild of America is on strike for the first time in 15 years, for plenty of good reasons.
The list includes simple stuff, like terrible pay in the profession, as well as complicated stuff, like the widespread use of “mini rooms.” That’s a practice wherein a bunch of union writers are brought on to write part of a TV show’s season before it gets the green light for completion and production. It’s a norm that leaves scribes in shorter, lower-paying jobs where they seldom get residuals for their hard work, since they may not be invited back to write the rest of the season, if it even gets made. In the words of the WGA, it has “Created a gig economy inside a union workforce.”
That’s not what this column is about, though. This column is about robots coming to steal your job.
A third, and perhaps less conventional point of contention for the striking members of the writers guild is the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in script-writing. And oh boy, is that a doozy.
First, a concession: the history of all hitherto existing AI script-writing is kind of bad.
In 2016, Director Oscar Sharp made a nine-minute short film called “Sunspring,” written entirely by an algorithm into which he fed a few hundred movie scripts from the ‘80s and ‘90s, along with a sizable chunk of Star Wars and Star Trek canons. It placed well in the Sci Fi London film festival’s “48-hour challenge” that year, despite containing an incoherent narrative and an equally meaningless script.
It was a fascinating experiment, but poor entertainment.
Since then, however, the software we call AI has gotten considerably better at producing coherent writing, just ask ChatGPT, a large language model that’s crazy good at synthesizing information, and has only improved since its launch in 2022. Or the machine learning program Microsoft wrote for Bing, which the company scaled back after it threatened users and claimed to be sentient in February. Or the chat bot “Replika AI,” launched in 2017 to help its inventor remember a deceased friend, but which eventually re-branded as a digital “romantic companion,” before that functionality was removed in March. I am not kidding.
There are some who believe AI will cross the picket line surrounding Hollywood right now, as directors desperate to prevent cancellations and meet deadlines turn to any alternative available. It’s certainly thinkable for serialized, formulaic productions like Law and Order, or whatever kids watch today instead of Fairly Odd Parents.
The point is, AI is getting good at writing, from silver screen dialogue to high school essays. This improvement is happening parallel to the technology’s rapidly growing ability to do other complex tasks like analyzing data, harvesting crops, and driving cars.
Enter recently unemployed media fire-starter Tucker Carlson, a man whose place on the political spectrum is perhaps the furthest distance imaginable from that of the average LA-based labor advocate. In a 2019 interview with Ben Shapiro (of all people,) Carlson voiced his concerns about the impact automated cars could have on the truck-driving workforce.
“Driving for a living is the single most common job for high school-educated men in this country, in all 50 states,” he said. “The social cost of eliminating their jobs in a 10-year span, 5-year span, 30-year span, is so high that it’s not sustainable … what I care about is living in a country where decent people can live happy lives.”
As a journalist committed to good faith, unbiased reporting, I have a level of disdain reserved for someone with the career history of Mr. Carlson, especially given recent events. But man, he’s got a really good point this time, and it’s a point that extends across industries.
The writer’s guild is positioned as the first major labor group to tackle modern, sophisticated automation as a threat to jobs. The exact wording of its bullet point on their list of demands calls for industry leaders to “Regulate use of material produced using artificial intelligence or similar technologies.”
That’s vague, but important all the same. It could mean studios would be banned from using AI at all, or perhaps restricted to using it only as a proofreading tool or minimally disruptive technology. It could mean the parties have to find some way to prevent computer-generated scripts from driving down the pay for writers.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, “Charlie’s Angels,” “Aladdin” and “Big Fish” screenwriter John August said WGA was aiming to prevent the use of AI-generated “literary material,” like a script, or even “source material,” like the book a script is later based on.
“We want to make sure that these technologies are tools used by writers and not tools used to replace writers,” he said, in the article by Ashley Cullins and Katie Kilkenny. “The worry is that down the road you can see some producer or executive trying to use one of these tools to do a job that a writer really needs to be doing.”
This is something I worry about in my own profession, as a different kind of writer. ChatGPT works roughly 100 times as fast as Beloved Award-Winning Journalist Kalen McCain, and does so without typos, both significant advantages in the news industry. It also doesn’t have pesky opinions to suppress in pursuit of unbiased journalism, unless the user specifically asks for them, which a respectable news outlet would not.
I have a few things running for me, of course. Kalen McCain model 1.0 comes equipped with arguably superior writing skills, and knowledge of AP Stylebook guidelines that are a little too complicated and arbitrary for current AI to understand. I also have a slightly better accuracy rate — two factual errors since Jan. 1, for those keeping score — and of course, my rapport-building boyish charm. Still, all but one of these are areas where algorithmic coding can feasibly catch up in the next few years, if not sooner.
Combine that with the technology’s already-established ability to understand speech (Otter.AI) hold a conversation (any chatbot) and schedule interviews (Motion AI Calendar) and you’ve got yourself a salary-free robot reporter by roughly 2033.
Let’s take this back to movie writers. What they’re doing is closer to art than what I’m doing, so one might reasonably assume emotion-free robots pose less of a threat. That makes some sense: you probably can’t write the next “Everything Everywhere All at Once” without pouring your heart and soul into it, something an automated system cannot do.
But a mid-tier season of a soap opera might be doable, as would a kids show like “Paw Patrol.” Also possible, an ill-considered revamp of long-running shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Supernatural,” which have more complex plot structures, but an overabundance of source content to feed into an algorithm.
If it’s a show you leave on for background noise while you clean dishes, or that you only watch when you’re sick on the couch at 1 p.m., drifting in and out of consciousness, an AI will probably be able to write its script within a decade.
Sure, plenty of consumers think of these examples as bottom-of-the barrel mindless TV garbage, but writing that garbage is genuinely hard work. It’s also a time-tested American tradition that generates revenue for companies and jobs for thousands upon thousands of people. By extension, it feeds thousands upon thousands of families, who in turn pay taxes and buy products and make friends and otherwise contribute to society.
Whatever agreement the writers and production studios come to on AI, they will be charting new territory, and likely setting the bar for other industries as machine learning picks up their respective talents.
The question is not whether automated writing is possible. It will be, if it isn’t already.
The question is whether we’re willing to let it happen. And right now, the answer relies on the success of the Writers Guild of America. I, for one, can live with reruns for as long as that takes.
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