A Union Representing Hollywood Authors and Actors Seeking the Limits of AI and Chatbots

When the union representing Hollywood writers compiled the list objective to contract negotiations with the studio this spring, it included familiar language about compensation, which writers say has stagnated or dropped amid a boom in new shows.

But further down, the document adds a clear 2023 change. Under a section titled “Professional Standards and Protection in the Work of Writers,” the union wrote that it aims to “regulate the use of materials produced using artificial intelligence or similar technologies.”

For a mix of computer programmers, marketing copywriters, traveling advisers, lawyers, and comic illustrators are suddenly worried about the increasing prowess of generative AI, now that screenwriters can be added.

“It's not out of the realm of possibility that before 2026, which is the next time we're going to be negotiating with these companies, they're probably going to say, ‘You know what, we're fine,'” said Mike Schur, creator of “The Good Place” and co-creator of “Parks and Recreation.”

“We don't need you,” he imagined hearing from the other side. “We have a lot of AI that creates a lot of entertainment that people like.”

In their quest to fight back, the writers had what many other white-collar workers lack: unions.

Mr Schur, who served on the Writers Guild of America negotiating committee as it tries to avert a strike before his contract expires on Monday, said the union hopes to “draw a line in the sand now and say, ‘Writers are people.'”

But unions, say historians, have generally failed to rein in new technologies that allow automation or the replacement of skilled labor with less skilled labour. “I'm baffled to think of a trade union that managed to be bold and successful,” said Jason Resnikoff, an assistant professor of history at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, who studies labor and automation.

The fortunes of writers, actors and directors negotiating new contracts this year can say a lot about whether that pattern will continue into the era of artificial intelligence.

In December, Apple introduce service enabling book publishers to use human-sounding AI narrators, an innovation that could replace the hundreds of voice actors who make their living from audiobooks. The company's website says the service will benefit independent writers and small publishers alike.

“I know someone always has to get there first, several companies,” says Chris Ciulla, who estimates that he has made $100,000 to $130,000 annually for the last five years writing books under a union contract. “But for individuals who don't understand how that might affect the bucket-carrying narrator out there it's ultimately upsetting.”

Other actors worried that the studio would use AI to replicate their voices while cutting them out of the process. “We've seen this happen – there are websites that come up with databases of character voices from video games and animation,” says Linsay Rousseau, an actress who makes a living with voice-over work.

Actors on camera indicate that the studio is already using motion capture or performance capture to replicate the artist's movements or facial expressions. Blockbusters 2018 “black Panther” relied on this technology for scenes depicting hundreds of tribesmen on a cliff, imitating the movements of dancers hired to perform in the film.

Some actors worry that newer versions of the technology will allow studios to effectively steal their moves, “creating new looks in the style of a wushu master or karate master and using that person's style without approval,” says Zeke Alton, voice actor and screen actor. who sits on the board of his local union, SAG-AFTRA, in Los Angeles.

And Hollywood writers are growing worried because ChatGPT has become adept at emulating the style of prolific authors.

“Early on in the conversation with the guild, we talked about what I call the Nora Ephron thing,” says John August, who is on the Writers Guild negotiating committee. “Which is basically: What happens if you put all of Nora Ephron's scripts into the system and produce an AI that can make scripts that sound like Nora Ephron?”

Mr August, a screenwriter for films such as “Charlie's Angels” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” said that while artificial intelligence has taken a backseat to compensation in the Writers Guild negotiations, the union is making two main demands on the subject. automation.

He wanted to ensure that no literary material — scripts, treatments, outlines, or even discrete scenes — could be written or rewritten by chatbots. “A horrible case of like, ‘Oh, I read your script, I didn't like that scene, so I had ChatGPT rewrite that scene' — it's a nightmare scenario,” says Mr. August.

Union also wanted to ensure that studios couldn't use chatbots to produce source material that was adapted to screen by humans, the way they would adapt a novel or magazine story.

SAG-AFTRA, the actors' union, says more of its members are signing on for individual work where studios appear to claim the rights to use their voices to produce new shows.

Netflix's recent contract seeks to provide the company with free use of voice actor simulations “with all technologies and processes now known or hereafter developed, throughout the universe and in perpetuity.”

Netflix says the language has been in use for several years and allows the company to make one actor's voice sound more similar to another if casting changes occur between seasons of animated productions.

Trade unions have said that its members not be bound by contract terms that would allow producers to simulate new shows without compensating actors, although they occasionally intervened to cancel their contracts.

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, executive director of SAG-AFTRA, said such contracts pose a much greater risk to non-union actors, who can become unwitting accomplices in their own obsolescence. “It only takes one or more instances of signing your right to life to really have the potential to negatively impact your career prospects,” says Mr. Crabtree-Ireland.

The Film and Television Producers Alliance, which haggles with various unions representing writers, actors and directors on behalf of major Hollywood studios, declined to comment.

When professionals fend off obsolescence at the hands of technology, the results often reflect the status and prestige of their work.

That seems to be the case for airplane pilots, whose crew sizes had fallen to two on most domestic commercial flights in the late 1990s, but have largely increased since then, even as automated technology became much more sophisticated and industry explored. further reduction.

“The safety net you have when you are away from the ground—which keeps you from crashing to the ground—is two pilots who are highly trained, experienced, and rested,” said Capt. Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents American Airlines pilots. To this day, flight times longer than nine hours required at least three pilots.

The replacement of certain doctors with artificial intelligence, which some experts predict is imminent in fields like radiology, has also failed to materialize. That's partly because limit technology, and because of the stature of doctors, who have plunged themselves into high-stakes conversations about the safety and deployment of AI the American College of Radiology created Data Science Institute partly for this purpose a few years ago.

Whether screenwriters find similar success will depend at least in part on whether there are inherent limitations to the machines they are meant to do their jobs with. Several writers and actors speak of the so-called uncanny valleys that may never be completely avoided by the algorithms.

“Artists look at everything that has ever been made and find flashes of novelty,” said Javier Grillo-Marxuach, a writer and producer for “Lost” and “Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.” “What the engine does is recombine.”

However sophisticated the algorithms are, the fate of writers and actors will also depend on how well they protect their status. How well do they convince their audience that they should care whether humans are involved?

The unions pressed their case. Mr. August says it is up to the Writers Guild and not the studio to determine who receives writer credit on a project, and that the union will jealously observe this rite. “We want to make sure that AI is never a co-author in the title chain for a project,” he said.

Unions also have legal cards to play, says Mr. Crabtree-Ireland of SAG-AFTRA, as stated by the US Copyright Office in March that content generated entirely by algorithms is not eligible for copyright protection. It is more difficult to monetize productions if there are no legal barriers to copying them.

Perhaps more important, he says, is what you might call the Us Weekly factor — the audience's tendency to be as drawn to the human behind the role as the show. Fans want to hear Hollywood celebrities discuss their methods in interviews. They want to gawk at the fashion sensibilities of the actors and follow who they date.

“If you look at culture in general, the audience is generally interested in the real life of our members,” said Mr. Crabtree-Ireland. “AI is not in a position to replace a key element of that.”