By Jon Swartz
'AI is potentially a good tool for writers -- until it displaces writers'
From the Cannes Film Festival on the French Riviera to a Senate subcommittee in Washington, D.C., and from a Hollywood back-lot summit to a Silicon Valley conference on the future of TV, one topic is on the lips of filmmakers, writers, novelists, musicians and other artists.
With equal amounts of dread and optimism, they are trying to wrap their minds around what the future will look like. Will artificial intelligence destroy creative communities in Hollywood, New York, Nashville and elsewhere? Or will it liberate artists to do better work?
The creative community is sharply divided as Big Tech players such as Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), Alphabet Inc.'s (GOOGL)(GOOGL) Google, Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc. (META) , Adobe Inc. (ADBE) and Nvidia Corp. (NVDA) hurtle ahead with generative-AI technology that could threaten the jobs of content creators and others. Battle lines have been drawn between the creative community -- artists who fear AI will gut their professions -- and AI developers and studios that are spinning the technology as a means for independent filmmakers to make big, studio-style movies.
At four separate events in the past week, examples of AI-generated creative contentlaid bare two starkly different expectations in the entertainment industry: AI could free content creators from menial tasks so they can concentrate on passion projects -- or it could cost them their jobs.
"You are asking science to evaluate art, and that's always going to be AI's fundamental limitation," Marc Guggenheim, a writer, producer and showrunner, said in an interview. "It may be good at mimicking human voices, but it will never do more than mimic."
Guggenheim, whose credits include "Arrow" and "Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia," sees AI as a destructive force that will supplant writers and stifle creativity. Hollywood writers are on strike amid fears that studios will replace them with generative-AI bots, but when AI does invade the writers' room, it could be in a much more subtle way.
For more:With writers on strike, would Hollywood call on AI to fill in?
A classic example, Guggenheim said, is how AI could turn note-taking during production meetings into an exercise in formulaic story pitches. For decades, writers have struggled with studio executives over these meetings, saying the notes result in content that's more commercial, less controversial, less diverse and more vanilla, Guggenheim said.
The concern is that AI, when fed with information about what has been successful in the past, will produce even less outside-the-box thinking. The example Guggenheim gave was the five-act story arc in the 2008 billion-dollar blockbuster "The Dark Knight," saying that the first note AI would likely give on that script would be to move to a conventional three-act formula. "The AI notes might say that approach was not structured properly," he said.
Yet the efficiency of AI in organizing meetings and writing processes provides an appealing upside to studios and streaming services that are attempting to cut content costs while streamlining production cycles. Conversely, the elimination of repetitive tasks could free up creative workers to spend more time on passion projects, say Hollywood insiders.
"Shows will be inspired by this technology," James Blevins, line producer on "The Mandalorian," said at AI on the Lot, a conference held last week in Hollywood that explored the promise and peril of AI. "When you see these tools, look for the opportunity rather than seeing the sky falling."
Adding 'complexity of scale'
A key opportunity offered by AI is the ability to add texture and nuance to visual effects and lighting at a fraction of the cost and time required to do that in the traditional way. Chris Perez, the director of product marketing at Perforce Software, contends that advanced virtual production powered by AI will be able to add "complexity of scale to more realistic, immersive environments," like buildings and realms, through surface details and shading. The visual effects would work equally well in a superhero epic or a period piece set in the 1930s.
The early-stage debate over the unpredictability of the fast-developing technology has spilled over into the technology industry itself, with executives at major AI providers taking opposing views.
"These Hollywood scriptwriters should be very afraid. You don't think Hollywood will use it?" C3.ai Inc. (AI) CEO Tom Siebel said in an interview. To underscore his point, he did a quick query about himself using ChatGPT-4. A sparkling biography was produced within minutes.
"Imagine producing a script for a sitcom or a procedural crime show," Siebel said. "Gen AI might have the intellectual capacity and prose of an eighth grader now, but it is learning fast. This is going to be crazy. Super scary."
It's not only writers who are scared. Actors are hearing that studios want to digitize their voices and bodies for scenes as well as for advertising and promotion purposes, said James G. Sarantinos, editor in chief of Creative Screenwriting Magazine. And writers, he said in an interview, "may become glorified engineers to punch up AI scripts."
But change is essential in any economy as diverse and vigorous as that of the U.S., argues one Silicon Valley venture capitalist, who thinks the changes will be less drastic than some expect.
"We have shifted from an agricultural society to an industrial society and now a knowledge society," David Blumberg, founder and managing partner at VC firm Blumberg Capital, said in an interview. "A lot of these doomsday, Malthusian theories are almost always wrong. In the short term, AI will mainly make you much more efficient at your job."
Others in the tech industry urge caution, however.
"This AI inflection point still is human centered," ServiceNow Inc. (NOW) President CJ Desai said in an interview. "But we need to make sure it is an augmentation of a human. Artificial intelligence can never replace human intelligence."
AI is simply a tool, notes Andy Parsons, senior director of content authenticity initiative at Adobe Inc. (ADBE). "It doesn't have to take over for humans. If our legislators and others get this right, it is largely an accretive tool that helps humans do more," he said in an interview. "But for creatives in particular, and creative pros and the audience Adobe serves, these are remarkable tools for creativity."
Startups are developing products that will determine the future of AI in writing and other creative endeavors. Sudowrite, an AI "writing partner" that launched Thursday, has already helped dozens of writers generate novels, for instance.
"I've heard multiple times that it's not necessarily using fewer people, but that individuals are more productive," said Monica Landers, the CEO of StoryFit. "There is a level of excitement about the future."
StoryFit uses AI to help the film industry with scripts and characters. "I was prepared for negativity, and instead I have people with decades of experience who have never seen anything like this saying they'll find a way to include me in financing if that's what it takes so they can use their AI," she said in an email message from Cannes this week.
Disruptive technology rattles creatives
People in creative industries have been down this disruptive road before. The introduction of the camera in the early 19th century forced portrait painters to shift to impressionistic art; the introduction of sound to movies with 1927's "The Jazz Singer" ended the careers of some actors, directors, cinematographers and others; and in the 1990s, computer animation changed the way animated films were made.
The history of technology changing creative work has led some, including Scott Steindorff, a TV producer and documentarian whose credits include "Station Eleven" and "Chef," to adopt a pragmatic approach to AI.
"We're not going to stop it. We need to understand it and embrace it," he said in an interview. "When the internet popped up, everyone was against it, and it ended up helping us. AI is like an advanced Google."
For now, generative AI can bang out a mediocre script when someone gives it a story idea and some characters. But that is likely to change over the next few years as the technology advances.
"AI is potentially a good tool for writers -- until it displaces writers or reduces writers' rooms," said Jason Vredenburg, a literary and film scholar and an associate professor at Stevens Institute of Technology.
Despite its ability to replicate cookie-cutter content from programming like procedural crime shows, lowbrow sitcoms and superhero movies, the underlying drawbacks of AI are that it is repetitive, with residual biases, and that it relies on stereotypical depictions of race and gender, Guggenheim said.
"There is clearly this gold rush. People are moving too fast," Jasmine Enberg, an analyst at Insider Intelligence, said in an interview. "We will still need the human element. You can augment creativity but cannot replace creatives completely."
Indeed, some artists are embracing "the intersection of smart human decisions with the speed improvement of AI" to augment their work, said StoryFit's Landers.
At the AI summit in Hollywood, Pinar Seyhan Demirdag, an art and creative technologist who developed Cuberic, a generative-AI project, put it in scientific as well as artistic terms. "You dance with the machine to get the gist of how to do it. AI tools invite us to think differently," he said.
"Whether it's a news article, book, song or Hollywood film, writers will always be in the conductor's seat, leveraging human creativity and imagination," said Volker Smid, CEO of Acrolinx, an AI sofware-as-a-service platform. "That won't disappear."
Therese Poletti contributed.
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May 27, 2023 09:03 ET (13:03 GMT)
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