The WGA Has an AI Proposal and It Needs to Become a Lot Smarter — Analysis

AI is developing so quickly that by the time the WGA agrees on an interpretation, it will be obsolete.
The WGA AI Proposal Needs to Become a Lot Smarter — Analysis
An image created with AI program Midjourney

The explosion of publicly available artificial intelligent services in recent months has accelerated conversations about the limitations of its use. As the Writers Guild of America prepares a new set of demands for upcoming studio negotiations, the guild has begun to incorporate AI considerations into its proposal. It needs work.

In February, the WGA said it would propose to “regulate use of material produced using artificial intelligence or similar technologies.” Last week, it specified that it would demand that no AI-generated material be considered “literary” or “source material.” In short, if a writer were hired to adapt an AI-generated idea, the writer would receive sole credit for the screenplay — neither the AI nor the software company behind it could receive an additional writing credit.

The WGA is right to consider the potential impact of AI tools on its members, but its current proposal stems from a narrow grasp of the technology. Rules now under discussion address the use of GPT-4 or other text-based generative AI services — only the most familiar kind of generative AI technology that has received media attention in recent months.

There’s a lot more than that going on now. A recent open letter from scientists, researchers, and other technologists called for a six-month pause on all AI research. For now, however, generative AI continues to develop so quickly that by the time the WGA agrees on an interpretation, it will be obsolete. A meaningful strategy for addressing AI requires proposals that anticipate more sophisticated AI integrations.

This week, software startup Runway AI began making its services available to testers. Unlike OpenAI, the company behind GPT-4 and the image-generating DALL-E, Runway can translate text prompts into video. (Runway has been used to speed up the VFX pipeline, including green screen technology that was used to eliminate the background of the rock universe sequence in “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”)

While early examples of Runway’s text-to-video effects might look rudimentary — here’s a river, there’s a cow at a birthday party — the potential for AI to generate actual moving images, and therefore scenes, gets much deeper into the creative process than words on a page or concept art. As strange as it may sound, we are not so far from a scenario in which a single pitch meeting could end with rough footage of an entire feature.

Consider an arbitration scenario in which a writer were asked to punch up material that comes out of that session. Why would a studio want to give a writer full credit if the AI created an actual rough cut? The outcome in this case might be executives more inclined to simply make the AI version and not bother with the union headaches, even if the product ends up subpar.

If the WGA wants to preempt such conflicts, it needs to negotiate a role in the overall use of AI in the creative process and begin to consider how writers can adapt to an evolving process. One possible demand: When a studio determines that it wants to bring AI into brainstorming — and many will, if they haven’t already — then that decision must be outsourced to the writer in question who will be hired.

In other words, it should be part of the job: The WGA should insist that its writers play an active role in AI prompts that instigate the idea for a project, as that’s where the true creative process of AI collaboration begins. Any idea generated by AI prior to a writer’s involvement should be off the table. To that end, writers must learn how to utilize text and image prompts: A lot of AI-generated content is quite bad, but that’s also because the prompts are mediocre. Hire writers to work with AI and the results will almost certainly become stronger as result — these machines work better when they take cues from talented human minds.

Many artists may find these ideas antithetical to their individual processes. Fair enough. There is genuine danger in the idea that AI could overtake originality in Hollywood and beyond. As a safeguard, the WGA and other Hollywood unions should consider setting a certain threshold for AI-generated film and TV scenarios every year. This would mean that while studios may indulge in the power of AI, they wouldn’t be able to do so in tandem with engaging original ideas that don’t use AI at all. It would also require a degree of transparency on the part of studios, which the WGA is already demanding in other areas.

The result would provide a clearer sense of what AI can and can’t do — a certain balance in studio product that would position AI and non-AI projects side by side. This would provide clearer metrics in terms of how AI can succeed in the market, as well as its shortcomings so that the union and the studio could grasp the terms of their negotiations going forward.

For now, they’re only dealing with hypotheticals. If it turns out that writer-driven, AI-generated projects are more commercially viable and otherwise valuable to a company’s bottom line, everyone — including writers who receive residuals — stands to benefit from adapting to a technology that shows no sign of slowing its roll.

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