AI gets writers' block

By: Rob Corbidge, 18 May 2023

Solid white cube in outer space

Taking up the cudgels for the content comrades, the Writers Guild of America has flung itself into the front line against AI-produced writing. Are they putting up a doomed defence? 

Making the first very public stand against AI involvement in the production of content has fallen to the Writers Guild of America, whose members have been seen holding placards aloft during an ongoing industrial dispute which bear such human-conceived slogans such as "Pay the writers you AI-holes".

The Hollywood writers' strike has been ongoing for a few weeks, primarily focused on pay rates, residual and repeat fees, how streamers treat writers, and - amongst all that, perhaps the most insidious threat - the potential use of AI generated content and ideas.

In the WGA proposal for a future pay agreement is the line "Regulate use of artificial intelligence on Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA) covered projects: AI can’t write or rewrite literary material; can’t be used as source material; and MBA covered material can’t be used to train AI."

That's a precise set of demands which, on the face of it, provide little room for the kind of negotiated shaving-down of hard positions that is the key to any agreement between opposed parties. Then again, Hollywood writers' strikes are not unheard of, and perhaps this sort of bargaining chip is the easy bit.

At the heart of the dispute is the fact that writers, or content producers, feel their work is undervalued and they aren't paid enough to make a precarious profession viable. The AI-hole aspect of this is that the WGA sees a future in which writers are downstream of the AI workflow - working on content that has been initially produced by AI and then providing a finessing, editing layer. This, is it thought, means the studios can claim the rights to the "original" AI-produced content and hence pay writers less.

It's not difficult to see how a varied form of this very dispute could arise in publishing.

One suspects the first fully AI-written streaming show would have a certain cache in marketing terms, yet whether it would become another Game of Thrones or simply be some outlier with the technical dead-end interest of a 3-D movie is yet to be discovered. 

Game of Thrones itself is derivative of course, taking a fantasy genre of which the foundational stones were already put down, and then using the very real Wars of the Roses that raged across the 15th-century British Isles to inspire much of its noble family conflict. I fully expect that some of my thick-of-arm-and-head ancestors stood on both sides of that conflict. As original material, am I not entitled to historical repeat fees or at least a commemorative pole-axe?

This point isn't made flippantly. All content is derivative to varying degrees of complexity. Stealing one piece of content and passing it off as your own is plagiarism, stealing 400 and doing the same is research. There's just a lot more personal processing required. That of course is the fear of AI: scale. Even as the most voracious of voracious readers, you can't match the scale of such models.

My instinctive feel is that AI-produced content must be allowed to do its worst, and best. Only then can its worth be judged. Yet, with most societies still scalded by exposure to the worst excess of social media, while failing to see its many benefits, such caution is understandable.

The content that Large Language Models are trained on is a different question, and one that publishers must be alert to. Publishers can be beneficiaries of this technology, but the overall impression at the moment is that we're paying $10 in to get $1 back out.

Generative AI is a tool, a point well made by Sam Altman at the US Senate hearings into AI this week. The WGA, as many before them have been, are wary of a new tool in their profession. Their only real option is to outperform that tool with their originality, even if they do gain some limited "no AI" agreement for a period of time.

Setting aside the rush by legislators to at least have a handle on what AI is free to do, the biggest protection for writers in Hollywood right now might come from the U.S. Copyright Office which currently states that AI produced creative works cannot be copyrighted - and if anything might give a production company nightmares it's the suggestion that their productions might somehow be freely copyable.

Anyway, as with any tool AI has the uses to which we put it, most of which are as yet undiscovered or not fully formed. 

The personification of AI, while making for good fright copy, is immediately to limit the imagination for the uses to which it can be put.