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AI is revolutionising the film industry but it must never replace writers

(Alamy)

4 min read

I watched the Hollywood writers’ strike with some interest. The battle over artificial intelligence (AI) replacing the workforce falls squarely in my area of political interest, and my husband – a member of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) – was on strike.

The debate about AI regulation is dangerously reminiscent of the last decade, when those who owned proprietary technology walked in and out of No 10, the European Union and the White House, talking loudly about the need for governments to regulate while using everything in their power to prevent it.  

The sector claims “exceptionality”, “a corporate right to free speech” and “safe harbour” from the norms of consumer rights while at the same time cashing in on the behaviour and engagement of millions. 

AI is poised to benefit those who own the technology while devastating the incomes of almost everyone else

Remarkably, the WGA kept its eye on the ball and secured a landmark deal. Writers can and will use AI for research, inspiration and even as a handy shortcut – but the settlement means that employers cannot use AI-created texts as a source material, nor can they take a writer’s work and use AI to embellish or edit it. 

This is about protecting creativity, but it is also about money. The first writer on any project establishes the tone and story, gets the on-screen credit and – importantly – is entitled to residuals. If source material is AI-generated and humans merely ‘polish’, they would receive a fraction of the fee. 

Similarly, using AI to edit a writer’s work deprives them of a creative journey that might see many versions of a script over several months or even years – and the subsequent payment for each.

It’s easy to assert that the writers’ settlement is merely a finger in the dam of what many feel is the inevitable new world order in which we are run by, and are dependent on, AI. But it is far more interesting than that. 

Striking writers did not take a position on AI but merely sought to mitigate the negative impacts on their community, ie undercutting their livelihoods. They did not wait for a summit or government regulation, but used existing processes to protect their position now. Perhaps most importantly, by having such a public fight they illustrated that the growing use of AI is poised to benefit those who own the technology, while devastating the incomes of almost everyone else.

How AI will revolutionise warfare, its power to undermine truth, and who profits from AI-generated increases in productivity and efficiency are the burning questions of our time. But the writers’ settlement indicates that while the sector would have us engage in summits about AI regulation – likely to be dominated by the dead weight of corporate interests – there are more immediate tools at hand, including collective bargaining, intellectual property law, data protection law, employment law, consumer law and the routine application of children’s rights and human rights. 

Every technological revolution presents itself as too seismic to contain, particularly when there is money to be made. Yet from the convulsions brought about by new inventions – be it electricity, the railway or the printing press – society has always eventually done the same thing: legislated, so that the winners leave something for the rest of us without preventing progress and innovation.   

As usual, wisdom on this issue comes from a child, admittedly a frighteningly informed 17-year-old, who told me: “To put the outcomes for humanity in the hands of AI means that we think we are at peak human knowledge, since AI is simply putting together vast swathes of information and taking an informed guess at what that information means.”

For the time being at least, the WGA has determined their writers have something more to add to human knowledge – in concert with, rather than subject to, changes in technology. And with it, hopefully, they will also contribute to our entertainment. 

 

Baroness Kidron, crossbench peer and British filmmaker 

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