Why are actors so worried about AI?

Salma Hayek in Black Mirror's 'Joan Is Awful'Alamy

Hollywood actors are striking for the first time in 43 years, bringing the American movie and television business to a halt, partly over fears about the impact of artificial intelligence (AI).

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) actors’ union failed to reach an agreement in the US for better protections against AI for its members – and warned that “artificial intelligence poses an existential threat to creative professions” as it prepared to dig in over the issue.

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the chief negotiator for the SAG-AFTRA union, criticised producers for their proposals over AI so far.

He said studios had asked for the ability to scan the faces of background artists for the payment of one day’s work, and then be able to own and use their likeness “for the rest of eternity, in any project they want, with no consent and no compensation”.

If that sounds like the plot of an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, that’s because it is.

US media has been quick to point out that the recent series six episode “Joan Is Awful” sees Hollywood star Salma Hayek grapple with the discovery that her AI likeness can by used by a production company without her knowledge.

Harrison Ford, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and others on the set of the latest Indiana Jones movie

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And it’s not just SAG-AFTRA who are concerned about so-called “performance cloning”.

Liam Budd, of UK acting union Equity, said: “We’re seeing this technology used in a range of things like automated audiobooks, synthesised voiceover work, digital avatars for corporate videos, or also the role of deepfakes that are being used in films.”

Mr Budd said that there was “fear circulating” amongst the Equity members and the union was trying to educate them on understanding their rights in this fast-evolving world.

Film-maker and writer Justine Bateman, speaking to the BBC’s Tech Life earlier this year, said that she did not think the entertainment industry needed AI at all.

“Tech should solve a problem and there’s no problem that those using AI solves. We don’t have a lack of writers, we don’t have a lack of actors, we don’t have a lack of film-makers – so we don’t need AI,” she said.

“The problem it solves is for the corporations that feel they don’t have wide enough profit margins – because if you can eliminate the overhead of having to pay everyone you can appease Wall Street and have greater earnings reports.

“If AI use proliferates, the entertainment industry it will crater the entire structure of this business.”

Perhaps it is only a question of time before ChatGPT or Bard can conjure up an innovative movie script or turn an idea into a blockbuster screenplay.

Some say AI will always lack the humanity that makes a film script great, but there are legitimate concerns that it will put writers out of a job.

The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain (WGGB) – a trade union representing writers for TV, film, theatre, books and video games in the UK – has several concerns, including:

  • AI developers are using writers’ work without their permission and infringing writers’ copyright
  • AI tools do not properly identify where AI has been used to create content
  • Increased AI use will lead to fewer job opportunities for writers
  • The use of AI will suppress writers’ pay
  • AI will dilute the contributions made by the creative industry to the UK economy and national identity.

The WGGB has made a number or recommendations to help protect writers, including AI developers only using writers’ work if they have been given express permission and AI developers being transparent about what data is being used to train their tools.

WGGB deputy general secretary Lesley Gannon said, “As with any new technology we need to weigh the risks against the benefits and ensure that the speed of development does not outpace or derail the protections that writers and the wider creative workforce rely upon to make a living.

“Regulation is clearly needed to safeguard workers’ rights, and protect audiences from fraud and misinformation.”

Movie clapper board

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The rapid development of AI over the past year has led to the concept of ownership becoming convoluted.

When someone inputs their likeness into an AI-generated portrait app such as DrawAnyone, DALL-E or even Snapchat – the resultant images are now in the public domain and free to use by anyone.

The new image is not protected by copyright law.

Dr Mathilde Pavis, a lawyer who specialises in digital cloning technologies, told the BBC that UK copyright laws need to change.

“It’s strange to me that your face and your voice is less protected than your car, your laptop, your phone, your house or your books – but that’s the state of the law today.

“And that’s because we didn’t think that we’d be so vulnerable, as vulnerable as we are in terms of being reused and imitated with AI technologies,” she said.

Additional reporting by Tom Gerken and Tom Singleton.

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