The Quill vs. The Algorithm: Can Writers and AI Coexist?

The Quill vs. The Algorithm: Can Writers and AI Coexist?
"Robot Scribes" by Marcel Gagné, created with Stable Diffusion

As I write this, the WGA, the Writers Guild of America, has been on strike for three months; the strike started May 2, 2023. Just over a month later, the union, which represents screenwriters who work on movies and television (including streaming media), was joined on the picket line by another union, SAG-AFTRA, which is the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. This union represents many different types of performers including actors, singers, voice artists, radio personalities and more.

Both unions have their own interests, but fair and equitable wages, better treatment by studios, and better working conditions, are common demands. Of particular concern is the subject of residuals. These are payments made to writers and performers for the reuse of their work on different platforms, including streaming platforms. Think Netflix or Disney+. Residuals are a huge deal! For many professionals in the industry, residuals (historically, at least) provide an ongoing source of income as shows move into reruns, physical media sales (like DVDs or Blu-ray), or on said streaming platforms.

Streaming is probably the biggest concern when it comes to residuals, and I'll get there, but let me take a step back for a moment, because despite a great many important issues, all of these (in the public eye, at least) have been overshadowed by two letters. A and I. Yep. Artificial Intelligence.

There is, and has been, so much wrong with the entertainment industry. Studios, and publishers for that matter, have treated talent as those annoying people business needs to put up with to make money. The laser focus on AI, I believe, directs necessary attention away from decades of exploitation, injustice, and mistreatment by those in power.

For ages (a hell of a long time anyhow), creative talents have been seen as disposable tools by Hollywood (yes, I know it's not all Hollywood) and publishing executives. Artists, writers, and performers have endured exploitation and abuse, stripped of rights and a voice at the table. Meanwhile, gatekeepers have enriched themselves on the backs of those creators, leaving dreams broken and potential unrealized. Seriously. How much more unrealized can you get than hiring extras for a couple of hundred dollars, then scanning their likeness so they can work for you, for free, forever? And then there's the creative ways companies employ to make sure actors and writers never see residuals (or at least as little as possible), especially when it comes to streaming services. These people are predators.

This isn't about AI. It's about treating people like shit. Not like people, but like 'human resources'.

God, I've always hated that term. Human resources.

The rise of AI presents a reckoning. Tech companies rally around training algorithms while established institutions are left scrambling to find relevance and meaning. How do we make even more money with this shiny new toy? The public fixates on capabilities of machines, oblivious to generations of creators who struggled thanklessly to entertain and enlighten them.

Except that none of this is new.

The real problem with focusing on AI is that it makes artists, creators, writers, and actors look like modern day Luddites afraid of a little competition. It conveniently draws attention away from the serious problems that got us here.

Before I continue with all this, I should come clean. I am a believer in AI as a tool for writers (and countless other applications for that matter, but let's leave that aside for now).

From generating ideas to correcting pesky grammatical errors, AI can undeniably streamline the writing process. I wouldn't be voicing my thoughts on this virtual platform if I thought otherwise. However, an AI shadow looms over this brave new world, and it's one that I feel we need to address openly and honestly. It's the elephant in the room whenever I chat with my friends in the writing community—those wordsmiths whose livelihood depends on the narratives they craft, both in the realms of fiction and non-fiction. They're scared, and rightly so.

Already, some have fallen victim to an insidious trend; they've lost their jobs because their employers decided that they could simply hire less experienced individuals to proofread what the AI churns out. The result? A plethora of career writers, with their unmatched creativity and honed skills, find themselves suddenly out of work. This isn't a dystopian projection for the far-off future, but a reality unfolding right now.

Let me paint you a picture. A few weeks ago, we invited some very dear friends over for dinner. He's a best-selling science-fiction novelist, one of the world's treasures in the field, and a prominent member of the screenwriters' union. As I served the succulent beef tenderloin steaks— which were quite exquisite, even if I do say so myself, and not just because I cooked them — the conversation steered towards this digital specter that haunts many a writer's thoughts.

Despite his considerable success, my friend’s concern was tangible. In the TV and film industry, the author responsible for the initial draft gets a significant cut, whereas the person polishing and editing that work receives a smaller slice of the pie. Now, Hollywood wants to introduce artificial intelligence as a new player in the writing process. They want to use AI tools to generate or modify literary material without proper regulation or compensation. The human writers? They would be at risk of losing their rights, credits and residuals for their work.

A cynical view? Perhaps. But let's indulge in a little speculation here. I can't help but perceive the shadow of corporate greed in this move. How can we—the mighty corporation—generate even more profit while paying our workers less for tasks we still need them to perform? Picture Mr. Burns from "The Simpsons", steepling his fingers with an evil smile, as he whispers, "Excellent."

Mr Burns from "The Simpsons" saying, "Excellent"

These words may sound harsh, but let's face it: in our profit-driven world, businesses are constantly seeking ways to reduce expenses and increase profits. The advent of AI, particularly generative AI, offers an enticing opportunity to accomplish both these objectives. But at what cost?

People need, and deserve, to be well paid for their work. Until we devise a more equitable solution, writers still need to put food on their table, pay rent, and cover their basic needs. Artists and creators of all stripes will continue to create, driven by an intrinsic need to express themselves and reach out to an audience. But if their work is undervalued—if they're stripped of their fair compensation and acknowledgment—there's going to be pushback.

Picture the coal miners who, despite the black lung disease that gnaws at their health, fight to keep the mines open because their survival depends on it. This comparison might sound hyperbolic, but isn't there a parallel here? If writers feel threatened by AI, won't they resist it, even if the technology has the potential to contribute to their craft?

Because it can. And does. And has, for years now. At this point, it's important to pause and consider the other side of the coin. AI isn't the villain of the piece—it's merely a tool, a product of our progress and innovation. It can process vast amounts of information, offer suggestions, and assist with mundane tasks, leaving the writer with more time to focus on the creative process. Plenty of writers have been using AI tools before they were called AI, from grammar checkers, to spell checkers, to autocorrect that suggests the next word. Granted, generative AI like ChatGPT is about as far from autocorrect as a Hot Wheels car is from a Formula 1 racer.

But the crux of the problem doesn't lie with the AI—it's the humans who decide how to implement and leverage this technology. If we use AI as a replacement rather than a complement to human creativity, we risk not only destabilizing the livelihood of writers but also devaluing the uniquely human touch that breathes life into a piece of writing.

So, where do we go from here?

For starters, we need to stop treating people as "human resources" (again, I hate that term with a passion) and start treating them like people. That means treating people well, recognizing their work and paying them for it. Society also needs to recognize where the value comes from in the entertainment they consume, and make it possible for people to earn fair compensation for what they create. So what if a writer used AI tools to help create their work? They still created it, and are still the primary driving source behind the technology. No generative AI system wakes up and says, "I've got a great idea for [insert your cool idea here]" and then goes off on its own to write it.

But again, people need to eat, drink, dress to keep warm, have a safe place to live and sleep, and... well, let's just say, live. Corporate greed needs to be reigned in, not just in Hollywood, but everywhere that people are treated like resources that can be dispensed with as soon as it's feasible to do so. That's going to take a lot of work, and political will. We may all be forgiven for thinking that the latter seems in short supply these days.

One potential solution that's been gaining traction in recent years is the concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI). It's a simple yet powerful idea: providing all citizens with a guaranteed income, regardless of their employment status. By ensuring that everyone has access to the basic necessities of life, we allow individuals the freedom to engage in creative pursuits without the looming threat of financial instability.

UBI could potentially quell the fear and resentment brewing among writers and artists. With a safety net in place, they would have the liberty to explore, experiment, and enrich society with their works. The AI could then become an ally rather than an adversary, a tool to enhance their craft rather than a menace threatening their livelihood.

Of course, UBI isn't a panacea. It comes with its own set of challenges and critiques, such as the risk of dis-incentivizing work, or the issue of funding such a scheme. It's a complex topic, and there's a plethora of research and discourse delving into its pros and cons.

Regardless, it's an idea worth exploring, if only to provoke a discussion about how we value and compensate creative work in our society. As we hurtle towards an increasingly digitized world, it's crucial that we don't leave our artists and creators in the dust. We need to ensure that the future of writing is a collaborative effort between man and machine, not a battleground.

The stunning defeat of the reigning world chess champion Garry Kasparov at the hands of IBM's Deep Blue supercomputer in 1997 marked a turning point in human perceptions of machine intelligence. Back then, generative AI like ChatGPT was pure fantasy. Few believed a computer could beat a champion like Kasparov, and yet, it did.

In the chess world, centaurs emerged as a hybrid human-machine partnership model that maximized the strengths of both. Sometimes called "advanced chess" or "cyborg chess", Centaurs combined the strategic insight and intuition of grandmasters like Kasparov, with the powerful computing capabilities of modern systems. This greatly boosted the playing strength of the "cyborg", enabling centaurs to defeat even the strongest chess computers that were based entirely on computational firepower.

By blurring the line between human and machine, centaurs helped create a vision of a future where humans and intelligent systems could collaborate in creative and productive ways. Centaurs quickly rose to dominate the world of competitive chess, surpassing what either humans or artificial intelligence systems were individually capable of.

To paraphrase John Lennon, you may say I'm a dreamer. But as writers, isn't dreaming our job? We envision different worlds, alternative realities, better futures. Perhaps it's time for us to dream of a world where AI and writers coexist—one where technology enhances creativity rather than suppressing it. Let's start that conversation today. What does your dream look like?

Please, feel free to leave me a comment with your take on all of this. I'd also really appreciate it if you would share the story on your social media sites and discuss it there as well.

Until next time...