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What’s Behind The Strike for Actors: AI in Hollywood

The emergence of AI in the industry of actors and writers, posed a threat to these artists as it could potentially take away jobs of real humans – replaced by AI machines and AI job postings. Big companies were reported to have AI related positions open. The strike serves as a unifying protest against adversities and unequal opportunities.
Photo of a group of very agitated street preachers shouting at each other through megaphones on a nighttime LA streetcorner, photo by Nicolai of Midjourney
Photo of a group of very agitated street preachers shouting at each other through megaphones on a nighttime LA streetcorner, photo by Nicolai of Midjourney
August 2, 2023 3:42 pm

A powerful protest of Hollywood actors and writers recently took over as they united in a historical strike fighting for their rights – a strike for fair wage and giving importance to their intellectual property against production firms and the possibility of being replaced.

Since the big breakthrough of AI, experts and users have been discussing the benefits and drawbacks of AI that is powerful enough to reach new industries, in this case, it reached writers and actors. 

In relation to the emergence of AI, it is often debated that creative jobs, such as in writing, are jeopardized and losing jobs. Due to chatbots' advanced improvements, algorithms reply more human-like – eventually they could create the scripts for the next show you binge.

Actors and writers under the banner of two prominent unions, SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America (WGA), joined forces and are on the streets, fighting against pay discrepancies and the adverse contribution of AI in their industry.

The core of the Hollywood union's strike is centered around better protection against the misuse of scanned images or voices of actors in AI-generated content.

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, chief negotiator for SAG-AFTRA, expressed concern that the actors, after being paid for one day’s work, might see their digital likeness used over and over without their consent or any further compensation.

Screenwriters, represented by the WGA, share this sentiment, fearing their work could be replaced by AI algorithms like ChatGPT capable of generating text-based outputs. They have been on strike since May 7, calling for labor safeguards against AI and stipulating that no AI engines should be credited with writing a screenplay.

Moreover, other creatives feel mistreated, and some take actions against these AI engines. To give an example, comedian Sarah Silverman, filed a class-action suit against Meta and OpenAI. 

Silverman filed an alleged copyright infringement suit as her books were reportedly utilized to train the companies' chatbots without her consent. These cases are yet to be resolved. 

Meanwhile, actors, who have recently engaged in a strike primarily triggered by concerns around AI-related issues, are pushing back to safeguard their digital likenesses.

Underlining the fears of the striking community, a job posting by Realeyes, which develops technology to read audience reactions to digital content, offered $300 for actors to “express[...] different emotions” and “improvis[e] brief scenes” to “train an AI database to better express human emotions.”. 

Though the gig emphasized that it was for research and not intended to create AI actors, Ben Zhao, Computer Science Professor at Chicago University, criticizes: “Industry research goes into commercial products.”.

The striking Hollywood workers' concerns about AI's rising dominance are tightly interlaced with the industry's compensation practices. Hollywood executives have come under fire for not increasing actors' wages while a spending spree on advanced AI programs. 

The common image of Hollywood being an industry of wealth and fame is questionable, due to the harsh economic realities faced by most members. A member of the SAG-AFRTA negotiating committee revealed that an overwhelming 87% of their union's members earn less than $26,000 annually, a barely livable wage.

As productions come to hold, other professionals connected to the industry, including makeup artists and technicians, are also experiencing significant financial strain, adding another layer of complexity to the issue. 

Fueling the anger further, Netflix recently advertised a position for an AI expert on its Machine Learning Platform team, offering an annual salary of up to $900,000.

While the job description consists of a broad range of responsibilities, an ambiguous aspect is whether the recruit will counsel on Netflix's content investments, which is a key issue for the actors' union, SAG-AFTRA. The union fears that algorithms might get a substantial influence over the investment decisions of different programs, diminishing the significance of individual successes of films and shows, and ultimately influence shows and even episode lengths.

Despite the backlash regarding the AI-based job posting, Netflix maintains that AI will not replace the creative process.

Disney, too, is diving into the AI realm, with job listings for AI-related roles recently posted. The company is seeking a senior AI engineer, intending to "drive innovation across our cinematic pipelines and theatrical experiences." The job advertisement cites the application of AI in several of Disney's renowned studios, including Marvel, Walt Disney Animation, and Pixar.

Disney CEO Bob Iger acknowledges the challenges of incorporating AI into their existing business model. He mentioned how AI has the potential to be highly disruptive and could pose difficulties, especially from an Intellectual Property management perspective. He notes that Disney’s legal team is already working intensively to address these potential issues, highlighting the challenges that AI integration could bring to the entertainment industry.

The emergence of AI has sparked a debate about the potential loss of both mundane and creative jobs. It has raised alarming questions about the ownership and ethical use of creators' digital identities, their compensation, and respect for their work. 

Machine-learning job vacancies in companies like Netflix and Disney only fuel the concerns. Hollywood's struggle with introducing AI is not an isolated incident, but a manifestation of the larger global debate about the integration, ethics, and implications of AI in various sectors.

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Written by Marei Schiffmann
Marei, a linguistics enthusiast, recently joined the Gold Penguin team as a writer. During her studies on multilingual communication, she discovered her true calling in the world of writing. She developed a keen fascination for AI and technological advancements. As a result, her writing primarily focuses on delivering the latest news in the realm of artificial intelligence.
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