Gus Carlson is a U.S.-based columnist for The Globe and Mail.
For decades, Hollywood writers have been creating stories about a future where machines take over the world. Think The Terminator, Blade Runner, I, Robot – even the animated kids’ movie, WALL-E.
Now, these creatives find themselves on the thin edge of the wedge in their own version of that apocalyptic plot line.
When the members of the Writers’ Guild of America went on strike this week, they listed among their demands a provision that nods to a not-too-distant future where human creativity is under siege: regulations for the “use of materials produced using artificial intelligence or similar technologies.”
Beyond the cruel irony of this existential crisis for writers, the call to limit AI’s influence in this context raises the question: Does it really matter who – or what – creates a good story well told?
Would viewers really care if their favourite Netflix series was the product of AI, as long as it was engaging and entertaining – and especially if they didn’t have to wait so long between seasons?
Purists would say they should care – that the human creative process is iterative and by nature takes time to brew. Great art, whether it is writing, music, film, stage, painting, dance or sculpture, is about the expression of human emotion and feeling that can’t be captured and replicated by machines. AI can do many things to mimic art, but is it really art?
Sure, AI can write a plot line about racism in Depression-era Alabama, but can it capture the powerful anxiety of Harper Lee’s To Kill and Mockingbird? It can spew out a scene where two friends kibitz about love in a New York diner, but can it capture the comic brilliance of a line of dialogue like “I’ll have what she’s having”? And yes, it can mimic a complicated guitar solo, but can it inspire like the magic of a B.B. King free-form riff?
Increasingly, however, the consumers and producers of content might not be so quick to dismiss the idea of tech-driven shortcuts to feed our instant-gratification culture.
As production costs for films, television programs and streaming series rise, and the demand to fill the content pipeline intensifies, the use of AI is becoming a real option for studios and networks. If they can produce high-quality content faster and cheaper – and the viewers and subscribers don’t really care or can’t even tell how the sausage is made – everybody, except the writers, of course, wins.
That point is more salient when we consider that restricting AI in the creation of stories isn’t the only thing the writers want as part of their contract negotiations with a trade association representing the top Hollywood studios, television networks and streaming platforms.
They have many more concerns in the here and now, including making more money. A big part of their gripes is that streaming series typically have fewer episodes than broadcast shows, so maintaining a consistent income stream is difficult.
These demands will further strain the budgets of the studios. If writers want to be paid more, AI would start to look all the more attractive to the studios.
Of course, Hollywood writers are not alone in their wariness of a creative world infected by technology. Book publishers are on the lookout for AI-manufactured manuscripts, and many college admissions officers are placing less weight on student essays – some are eliminating them as a requirement altogether – because of widespread use of AI to create personal stories so expertly written they could not have come from the keyboard of the average teenager.
As writers and other artists struggle to protect their gifts, the broader cultural challenge is clear. There are many things AI can do, as well as many things it can’t. The quandary for creatives is whether the difference will continue to matter to the average humanoid consumer of their wares. The economic viability of their craft hangs in the balance.