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Why the AI demand from the Writers Guild strikes is the most important talking point

Members of the Writers Guild of America, WGA picket outside CBS Television City in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles Tuesday, May 2, 2023.
Members of the Writers Guild of America, WGA picket outside CBS Television City in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles Tuesday, May 2, 2023. Copyright Damian Dovarganes/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Damian Dovarganes/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
By Jonny Walfisz
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The WGA knows the danger of entertaining conversations about AI replacing creative writers. It's a conversation that puts human expression at risk.

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The Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) strikes that started in the US this week represent the largest single union of television and film writers yet. More than 11,000 writers put down their pens in protest, and the significance of one demand in particular caught my eye.

Of course, all of the demands are incredibly important, from proper residuals from streaming releases to preserving writers room. However, these demands are mainly looking at the state of screenwriting as it is today. The demand that interests me is the one looking towards the future, on role of artificial intelligence in writing.

“Regulate use of artificial intelligence on 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,” the WGA lists among its proposals.

The demand is clear. MBA stands for “Minimum Basic Agreement”, meaning the lowest standard for what the WGA will allow in a writer’s contract. The WGA is saying that they want to make a blanket ban on ever having AI replace the role of an actual writer in Hollywood.

In the build-up to the strikes, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which the WGA is in negotiation with, rejected the demand. Instead, they countered by “offering annual meetings to discuss advancements in technology.”

I won’t speculate on whether the WGA will be successful in its demand against AI, but by including this demand in the proposals list, the WGA is making the single biggest stand against AI on behalf of the creative industry. The way this proposal goes will significantly shape the role AI will have to play in the arts for decades to come.

AI is having a bit of a moment right now. It’s hard to navigate the internet without being bombarded with stories of film series being remade in Wes Anderson’s style, or an art competition being won by an AI generated image.

While these stories can be fun, there’s also another strain of conversation growing around AI: When will AI be good enough to replace artists completely? There are frequent conversations on Twitter about how ChatGPT will render living journalists redundant. 

From many corners of the tech world, people are excited at the prospect of replacing writers with AI counterparts. Which seems to me to be so peculiar, and also illuminates just how many people don’t really see the value in art made by humans.

Why AI can't compete with journalism

Firstly, it’s not about whether the AI is convincing or not. 

Yes, AI frequently makes mistakes when rendering images of people’s hands and yes, when tasked with writing a comedy set it’s not as funny as the equivalent comedian’s actual work. That’s all true today. Will it be true forever? Maybe not. But the argument against AI artwork is deeper than that.

Take journalism, for example. It’s true that a good AI can replicate the muted tone of voice many news outputs try to achieve. It could very reasonably write a believable article in the style of many different sources. But writing the article is only the surface of what goes into good journalism.

Real journalism is about going into the world and reporting what you find. It’s about research, talking to people, hearing stories and then putting them to print.

For all the skill of AI to replicate a human’s writing style with the ample existing evidence online, real journalism brings information from the world and puts it online. The data that the AI is based on can’t expand to include the events of reality offline without writers going out into the world and reporting what they see and hear.

This is the big misunderstanding from the people clamouring for AI to replace writers. As multiple news outlets like Buzzfeed and Vice struggle in a market that doesn’t value journalism anymore, the entry point of reliable information is shrinking.

All art is autobiographical

So now we come to the problem of AI and fictional literature. 

The WGA is keenly aware that in their protest against AI, they are fighting for the artistic corner of the tension between creatives and studios. While the practical corner is more about pensions and reliable salaries, it’s in treating Hollywood writing as an art form, instead of a product that the AI conversation takes place.

In an era where every art form is reduced to “content”, it’s easy to forget that the purpose of the work WGA members do is about more than just entertainment. If all that mattered was entertaining content, then the end goal would probably be an electrical diode attached to your head delivering a frequency of synaptic shocks that trick your brain into thinking it’s happy.

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Speak to any Hollywood writer and even on the biggest, most action-packed blockbuster spectacle, they will tell you how much of their heart and their personal experiences they’ve put into the script. Just like with journalism, fiction always takes from the real world and puts it on the page. Avatar: The Way of Water is about James Cameron’s own feelings of insecurity for the planet and his family, just as The Fabelmans is taken from Steven Spielberg’s own childhood, and Everything Everywhere All At Once is influenced by Daniel Kwan’s experience as an Asian-American.

Italian director Federico Fellini put it best: “All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster's autobiography.”

The real human experiences that inspire art is what makes us fall in love with them. AI may be increasingly accurate at capturing an artist’s aesthetic, but that’s only skin-deep. It may be a useful tool for many aspects of an artist's career, but it could never replace an artist entirely. 

The human species is a social one. Our interest in each other’s experiences and how they relate to our own is what has driven every part of culture. Failure to see that is a failure to see the true beauty in any artform, from the smallest scale indie production to the largest Hollywood blockbuster. When writing works, it creates a moment of connection between an artist and an audience that has become precious in our overly content-saturated world.

One day, an AI will be good enough to write a script of a perfect fake biopic. It will amalgamate every piece of drama about childhood, struggle, trauma, and victory to sculpt a perfect product. The result will reflect hundreds of years of humans telling their own stories. It will be an interesting product to study how we create, and how a machine has tried to then perfect our creation. 

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Will anyone truly prefer this perfect fake over an imperfect biopic of a real person? I don’t think so.

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