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Unions Take Action to Protect Quality of TV and Movies

In 2008, I established a blog named io9, dedicated to science and science fiction. As the founder, I had the privilege of working with a team of human writers who shared my passion for the subject. However, this all changed when I left and the blog fell into the hands of an artificial intelligence (AI) system. Recently, I discovered a shocking post titled “A chronological list of Star Wars movies & TV shows” that was not only incomplete but also lacked a chronological order. This article, generated entirely by AI, caused an uproar among readers and industry professionals alike.

James Whitbrook, the deputy editor of io9, expressed his outrage in a letter to the parent company G/O Media. He pointed out the numerous errors and emphasized the importance of human writers in crafting quality content. The incident gained significant attention, from The Washington Post to Variety, as it highlighted the growing concern about AI-authored content in creative industries.

The rise of AI poses a threat to various creative fields, prompting organizations like the Writers Guild of America (WGA) to take action. The WGA is currently on strike, demanding a contract that guarantees writing credits are not given to AI for screenplays. The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) have joined the strike as well, as some movie studios have started replacing actors with digital replicas. In one unsettling example, actors were asked to provide digital scans of their bodies and voices for unlimited future use. This means they could be paid for a single day of work while the studio profits indefinitely.

I spoke with Eric Heisserer, a member of the WGA negotiation team, about the sudden urgency surrounding AI in the industry. Heisserer, known for his work on films like “Arrival” and Netflix series like “Shadow and Bone,” acknowledged that AI was not initially a prominent concern during contract negotiations. However, by April, the WGA members had become aware of AI applications such as ChatGPT and Midjourney, causing growing anxiety.

Numerous industry professionals shared their concerning experiences with AI-generated content. An actor revealed audition sides for undisclosed projects that were completely written by ChatGPT. The resulting dialogue was difficult to read, described by Heisserer as the “uncanny valley version of writing.”

Another union member shared their encounter with a producer who wanted to hire them for a mere 48 hours to refine an AI-generated screenplay. The job involved making the script sound more human or fixing any issues with the dialogue. Aside from the demoralizing nature of the task, the compensation offered was far from acceptable. A script that would typically take months to write was expected to be completed in just two days. Moreover, the writing credit, crucial for payment and recognition, would be compromised if an AI system usurped it.

Heisserer also raised a concern about copyright. AI models like ChatGPT learn by consuming and reiterating human-written text, potentially leading to legal disputes over ownership. Studios may find themselves grappling with complex questions regarding material ownership and usage rights.

Despite these challenges, AI is not going anywhere. OpenAI and Google have approached newspapers in the US, proposing to pay them for testing AI’s capabilities in local news coverage and research. Numerous companies and publications, including CNET and io9, are experimenting with AI technology. Heisserer believes that the ongoing strikes by WGA and SAG-AFTRA are just the beginning, suggesting that journalists and novelists will soon find themselves needing to address the encroachment of automation in their workplaces.

Speculating on the future, I asked Heisserer if AI systems would ever consider joining a union. He laughed and replied that AI’s involvement in unions would likely come long after they have taken on roles as CEOs and executives. As he pointed out, the complexities of artistic expression far surpass those of executive decision-making and market analysis. For now, the creative realm remains the domain of human ingenuity and imagination.

Annalee’s week

What I’m reading
“We Need New Stories” by Nesrine Malik, a thought-provoking analysis of political myth-making in the media.

What I’m watching
“Polite Society,” an exciting tale about a teenage aspiring stuntwoman, directed by Nida Manzoor.

What I’m working on
Growing chamomile and mint in my garden to create herbal infusions.

Annalee Newitz, a science journalist and author, is committed to exploring the frontiers of scientific discovery and its impact on society. Their latest novel, “The Terraformers,” showcases their thought-provoking storytelling abilities. Additionally, they co-host the Hugo-winning podcast “Our Opinions Are Correct.” To stay updated with Annalee’s work, follow them on Twitter @annaleen or visit their website at techsploitation.com.

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