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The AI Writers Room

May 31, 2023
By D.J. Murphy, Senior Editor, Digital Content for Data Universe

Dystopian Thriller or Real-Life Threat? Writers’ Strike Provides Early Battleground for AI.

While concerns mostly unrelated to AI drove members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) to walk off the job recently, media coverage of the dispute has centered on the technology and how it could render writers unnecessary. The labor union, which represents more than 11,000 professionals who write the scripts for films, broadcast and streaming TV shows and other entertainment, struck mostly over how writers are compensated for the work they do on shows for streaming services.  Within the last month, however, the topic of AI’s implications for creatives has swiftly shifted the flow of discussions and public interest in them.

Before November 2022—aside from those working on sci-fi—most writers likely gave little thought to AI’s impact on their profession. The launch of ChatGPT, however, captured the concern of the public in a way AI had not been able to previously. People quickly separated into camps perceiving generative AI either as beneficial or as a career-ending foe. Even as many writers have begun testing the tool for their own idea generation and editing, the WGA is negotiating from the worst-case position: arguing AI will negatively impact its members and trying to ensure humans remain compensated for all entertainment writing. 

While it isn’t the primary concern of WGA negotiators, it is important to the ongoing debate and highlights the role of private industry in the evolving regulatory environment around the tech. 

This month, several executives including OpenAI’s Sam Altman testified in front of U.S. congressional committees offering their suggestions for the best ways to regulate AI. Additionally, MIT Tech Review published an article outlining ways that governing bodies around the world are attempting to address the potential risks and benefits of a future where AI could be life-changing with unintended positive and negative consequences.

The WGA strike and conversations around it starkly illustrate how societies have responded to massive technologist shifts with a mix of fear and hope, but not usually a realistic understanding of the true outcome. For more expert perspective on past technological advances and our inability to anticipate the future, consider reading the views of Rodney Brooks or this summary of Gates’/Amara’s Law

A close reading of the WGA’s position reflects many of the long-range concerns professionals in other industries will likely share about AI. According to a statement released on Twitter, the WGA has proposed “to regulate use of material produced using artificial intelligence or similar technologies [ensuring] the Companies can’t use AI to undermine writers’ working standards including compensation, residuals, separated rights and credits.”

It seeks to ban AI from being used as source material and exclude AI-written or rewritten work from being covered under its contract, not banned completely. The guild is also fighting against the possibility that writers would be required to adapt AI-written scripts nor could AI be used to adapt or continue existing works.

Essentially, whether a script is penned by a human or an AI, either in whole or in part, the WGA wants a human writer to be paid and credited. And that is where negotiations with the producers have broken down. “It is important to note that AI software does not create anything,” the WGA said in the post. “It generates a regurgitation of what it's fed.” Producers, at the moment, do not want any restrictions on the use of generative AI. They call the issue of AI in entertainment “complicated” and say it “requires a lot more discussion.” In its press release announcing the strike, the WGA said writers are being completely “stonewalled” on the issue of AI-written material by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the group the writers’ union is negotiating with.

Efforts by governments to regulate AI will eventually coalesce out of the current fog. The most promising, according to the MIT Tech Review article cited above, will likely build on frameworks that have already been in development for years by international coalitions (including the European Union, which on May 11 reached another milestone leading to likely passage of its AI Act).

But, as technologists understand, the technology has already far outpaced the understanding of legislators and will race farther ahead before laws are enacted. Contract negotiations in industries where AI will impact the enduring schism between management seeking to cut costs and increase productivity and labor trying to protect their livelihood will shape the debate much sooner. And no labor action will matter more to uninvolved parties than this one.

Data Universe will carefully monitor the progress of these negotiations as they continue. While our outlook is generally positive, it may turn out that this tightknit community of writers saw most clearly the downside of their own predictive fantasies.  Creatives are often, after all, the most in touch with the human spirit.  But perhaps this is also exactly the reason AI will never be able to replace their pivotal role in the creative process

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