Striking Hollywood writers fear AI will write them out of the script


In a scenario ripped from an episode of the Twilight Zone, or the new Netflix series Mrs. Davis, Hollywood writers say they are fighting to keep their work in human hands, fearing that artificial intelligence could eventually take their jobs. 

Thousands of television and movie writers are picketing in Los Angeles and New York this week, demanding better pay, higher streaming residuals, job security and restrictions on the use of artificial intelligence or AI on creative projects.

The Writers Guild of America said Monday it wants studios and networks to stop the use of AI for writing or rewriting literary material – or training AI using original material. In essence, they want to ensure that literary work is kept in human hands.

On the picket line this week, comedian, director, actor and writer Rebecca Addelman – a Canadian living in Los Angeles – described the mood.

“We all felt like this was a little scary,” Addelman told CBC.

Writers rage against the machines

“A new literary idea that is put down in script form needs to be written by a human and it can’t be rewritten by a machine,” Addelman said.

An woman holds a picket sign in LA.
Rebecca Addelman pickets this week in Los Angeles in front of Warner Bros. Gate 2. The Canadian comedian, director, actor and writer says it is a scary time for writers in Hollywood. (Rebecca Addelman)

Some 11,000 WGA members began striking Tuesday, halting television production and risking season delays at a time when the entertainment industry is facing seismic structural shifts, from the advent of Netflix, to live streaming and the adaptation of digital artificial intelligence tools.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers  (AMPTP), which represents major Hollywood studios, said in a statement on Thursday that AI “raises hard, important creative and legal questions for everyone.” Material produced by AI cannot be copyrighted or credited for writing under the current contract, according to the statement.

 AMPTP said the current WGA contract defines a writer as a “person.” 

Some digital developers and producers say AI is best used for visual effects streamlining — managing tedious detailed work — not for replacing key creative jobs.

But writers fear productions could be sheared down to one writer and a computer.

“This is an existential crisis for writers,” Jamey Perry, a TV actor and vice-chair of the WGA’s Disabled Writers Committee, told Reuters.

By Thursday, Drew Barrymore pulled out of the upcoming MTV Movie & TV Awards in solidarity with striking writers, who say they are pushing back against a powerful new crop of artificial intelligence tools. These chat bots can be used to digest vast troves of online data and generate everything from essays to song lyrics — and perhaps a future Academy Award winning screenplay.

Will AI take over?

While this may sound like a sci-fi plot twist — where the writer gets written out of the script by a robot — digital developers warn this tech does have the potential to replace workers in many creative industries.

In 2016, a short sci-fi movie, Sunspring, was written by AI, according to director Oscar Sharp, who created the work for a film festival.

Hollywood writers picket for job security, pay, residuals and to artificial intelligence restrictions at Universal Studios in California.
Workers and supporters of the Writers Guild of America protest outside Universal Studios Hollywood on May 3. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Actor Patricia Summersett, based in Montreal and Los Angeles, is the voice of Princess Zelda in Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild videogame. She’s currently writing a screenplay.

“I feel like writers have the hardest job. It’s often overlooked because it’s such a long, slow, rigorous, meticulous process,” she said. Writing is “the foundation for the house of any story,” she added, arguing that humans must limit the use of tech to craft stories “so we don’t lose our humanity.”

AI tools used in visual effects, script screening

Professor of neuroscience and business at Columbia University in New York, Moran Cerf, lectures to the likes of Elon Musk on the future of AI. He said Hollywood writers and others should be nervous.

“I think that they’re rightfully concerned, as should anyone who has any business that involves writing or text,” he said. “Hollywood has been using AI technology already, lightly,” he added, but it has the potential to expand. 

He describe how AI already combs through submitted screenplays and creates many of the special effects we watch.

Cerf said thousand of scripts are sent to studios, so they feed the raw material into computers for the first review. Only if the original material meets a certain criteria — the program looks for things like active voice, a strong protagonist and a certain story arc — then it may get read by a human. He said script writers even try to cater to this algorithm.

To Cerf, the Hollywood writers strike is actually a bellwether moment; it’s awakening people to some of the potential threats from AI.

“Hollywood is a canary in a coal mine,” he said. “AI will replace the job of the assembly line worker but it will also replace the job of a creative agent who has to come up with a new ad for the Super Bowl.”

Fighting tech advances tough

But Cerf said AI is not all doom and gloom.

“This weekend. I’m going to spend time with Elon Musk and his people who are kind of writing articles saying we should ban AI or freeze it or both. And I’m taking a difference stance,” he said. 

Hollywood writers picket outside Universal City - and area of Los Angeles, California.
Workers and supporters of the Writers Guild of America protest outside Universal Studios Hollywood on May 3. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

“I can give you in history a lot of examples of technologies that came and people were very worried that their life was going to be kind of futile… When machines started doing agriculture, all the farmers thought: ‘This is it. We are useless.'”

So why not let digital intelligence take over screen writing in Hollywood’s so-called dream factory?

Ask Canadian AI pioneer Geoffery Hinton who just quit his job at Google to speak openly about the need to control the technology. 

Hinton spent a half-century working to try to get computers to learn and now believes that digital intelligence developing in the form of chat bots — like as Chat GPT – GPT-4 and Google PaLM – is on the brink of eclipsing human intelligence, and potentially humans in his worst case scenario.

Hinton told CBC’s Nil Köksal on As it Happens: “I don’t know of any case where a more intelligent thing is controlled than a less intelligent thing.”

WATCH | Godfather of AI’ steps down from Google: 

‘Godfather of AI’ steps down from Google

Renowned AI pioneer Geoffrey Hinton has resigned from Google so he can speak more freely about the potential dangers of advanced artificial intelligence. He is the latest leading tech figure to call for a slowdown in AI research, warning AI could eclipse human intelligence.

But, for now, Hinton said digital intelligence has limits, and there’s time to erect guardrails.

The pixie dust factor

Moreover, entertainment industry leaders are not convinced AI will be able to write hits.

“In a business shrouded in pixie dust and magic and new ideas, it’s very hard for AI to do that,” said Noah Segal, co-president of Elevation Pictures in Toronto.

Segal sees AI advances as useful production tools, but no match for fickle viewers.

“Consumers see what they like up to a certain point and then they say: ‘I’ve seen enough of that.’ They just turn on anything they liked 15 minutes ago,” said Segal.

Hollywood writers picket over pay and AI restrictions.
Workers and supporters of the Writers Guild of America protest outside Universal Studios Hollywood on May 3. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Bob Woolsey, the head of film production at the Vancouver Film School, watches the industry to help guide Canada’s next generation of directors and filmmakers. 

Woolsey said AI is already used extensively, especially in the non-unionized visual effects industry, for video games and motion capture. He is “more intrigued than alarmed” and encourages students to experiment with the powerful new digital tools that aid film production, as long as they don’t plagiarize.

“I know all of the worst case scenarios from watching science fiction movies,” Woolsey said. “I feel like AI is a tool and we will use it as a tool.”

“It’s not going to replace writers,” he added. “But I think that there’s a lot of stuff that writers get paid for now that it could threaten.”

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