I’ve always liked watching the credits. I don’t know when I picked up the habit, but there’s always been something magical about watching all the names scroll past. Thinking about how each of those names is someone who played a part in creating that media that I’m now watching. As I’ve grown up, I’ve found myself more interested in following who is in the list and following the names between productions.
The Writers Guild of America (WGA) has been on strike since 2 May, after a strike authorisation passed with a yes vote of 97.85%. The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) joined the strike on 13 June.
Amidst other proposals, the WGA is fighting for a proposal relating to the use of artificial intelligence in scriptwriting. They are seeking for AI to not be used to write or rewrite material, and for scripts to not be used as source material or be used to train AI. As of May, the proposal had been rejected by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). The AMPTP responded instead with an offer to have meetings to discuss technological advancements, which seems, at the least, like a cop out on having a hard conversation.
At the heart of this conversation is the question, what value do we ascribe to the creation of written work? It’s easy to forget when you watch a movie or a tv series that a person, often a group of people, has written the moment you are watching play out. In fact, if they are doing their job well, you are probably intentionally forgetting this. But as much as that actor did a wonderful job bringing the line to life, so did the writer who came up with it or suggested it as an alternative on the day.
Writers have been chronically under-appreciated for this work. Unfortunately, the increasing prominence of generative AI seems to be a continuation of this. Many have argued that generative AI is merely a tool for people to exercise their creativity. But there seems to be an issue with this argument, generative AI is not a tool that exists in a vacuum. The very development of these apparently creative technologies relies on taking the creative work of others and subsuming it into their processes without acknowledging the original contributions. This is partly why many artists and creators have issues with the use of generative AI. Not only do those marketing it, portray it as a way to effectively replace their work, they use their own work to do so. With lawsuits for copyright infringement, particularly in the US, against ChatGPT and other generative AIs starting to appear, we will have to wait and see how current legislative frameworks deal with these issues. Multiple jurisdictions globally are attempting to develop their own regulatory responses to deal with emerging AI systems more broadly.
But, generative AIs seem to pose a unique cultural threat to the written word. This threat then extends to those whose work involves the written word. If we are not willing to fight for the value of their work, then are we ready to accept that our media will be manufactured, impersonal, and repetitive?
Here’s my problem, generative AI is good at providing the average. If a model is trained on content that is freely available on the internet, the final product becomes what is essentially the common voice of the internet. This common voice is the average of the content it has been fed. When you ask a generative AI to write a script, in most cases the AI is attempting not to write an interesting screenplay, but to write what it has been trained to expect as the next word, phrase, sentence, and paragraph of a screenplay.
The advantage that we, as people who care about the art we consume, have is that there is still a human who is required throughout these supposedly automated processes. It is important in these conversations to remember the human in the equation. Technology does not develop by itself. It is not used in a vacuum. People shape all of this. A human gives the generative AI a prompt, asks it to make changes, edits the text after it is produced, and so on. The person with the greatest potential impact, however, is the one at the very start, who decides to use or not use generative AI, and if it is used, how it is used.
It’s the “how” that really matters here. If we want to treat generative AI as a tool, then it matters how we use it and what uses we are willing to accept. With studios appearing to hire for AI related roles, it seems like they want to decide how it will be used. If they are allowed to do this, they will put cost above creativity. The WGA’s proposals put the controls in the hands of the writers, letting writers decide how and when it should be used.
These writers have trained, practised, and developed their skills to create the content that comforts and challenges us. They know how to transform perspectives, experiences, and skills into the stories that capture us. They are fighting to keep doing this (and to, very deservedly, get paid fairly for doing so). And I really hope that they succeed.