Actors are leading the charge against AI: ‘we’re speaking for everyone’

In our coverage of the historic WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike, We’ve talked about the inequitable distribution of streaming residuals. Another key issue is AI being used to replace the work of humans, both writers and actors. With the eyes of the world on their picket lines, members of the SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee are telling the press that the protections they are fighting for stand for all workers in this moment:

SAG speaks for the trees: If actors don’t win serious protections against being replaced by AI, “it ends the profession,” Zeke Alton, a member of the Sag-Aftra negotiating committee, said. “They’re forcing us to negotiate and bargain for our very existence.” Actors are also very aware that the battle between workers and bosses over AI and other new technologies does not end with them, he added. “When our very recognizable members speak, the whole world tends to listen, and we’re aware of that. UPS is having issues, Starbucks is having issues, teachers are having issues, nurses are having issues. We have a really loud voice at Sag-Aftra, and we’re speaking for everyone.”

AI can’t play The Godfather: It should not be a surprise that the battle lines over labor and AI are being drawn in Hollywood, said Jennifer Coates, a partner at law firm Dorsey & Whitney who specializes in tech-related cases. “This has come to such a head in the entertainment industry because it has to do with something so fundamentally human, which is creativity,” Coates said. “Can there really be an AI-generated version of Marlon Brando in The Godfather? Can you create that with a computer, or do you need to understand something about human beings, about human expression?”

A matter of consent: A major flash point of the first week of the actors’ strike was a comment from Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, Sag-Aftra’s chief negotiator, who said that studios had “proposed that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get paid for one day’s pay, and their company should own that scan, their image, their likeness, and to be able to use it for the rest of eternity, on any project they want, with no consent and no compensation”. It’s a description the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) has disputed, calling it a “mischaracterization”. “The union has distorted the facts in an effort to garner support for its work stoppage,” the producers said.

‘In the event that you die’: Background actors have become a focus of AI concerns because they are an obvious target of cost-cutting measures, said Chris Gomes Muffat, an AI expert and founder of AI-powered content creation tool Promptify. “In a movie, you have a lot of people around the protagonist who do not do anything but be part of the scene, without dialogue. AI can easily replace and populate people in the background artificially. It’s cheaper to do that than to manage and pay 100 people.” Already, on sets, “background actors are run through the scanning truck and are told in the moment, ‘You’re just going to do this,’” Alton said. “Our principal performers are being told, ‘In the event that you die, we need to scan you and have a model of you, a la Paul Walker in The Fast and the Furious.’” In both cases, these requests are happening outside the purview of Sag-Aftra’s standard contract – putting actors in precisely the kinds of unequal negotiating positions that unions are designed to prevent, Alton said.

[From The Guardian]

This is why AMPTP never wanted SAG-AFTRA to go on strike, cause the receipts are coming out on just how soulless and money-grubbing they are, and people are listening. It’s like they fundamentally don’t get (or are just willfully ignoring) that this is an artform, one rooted in what it means to be human, and how could AI ever replace that? Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (still my favorite name in this saga) was brilliant in making the studios’ AI scanning plans public. Whether or not you can follow the intricacies of advanced technologies, everyone understands the imbalance of being paid for one day’s work on a product the employer can make money off of in perpetuity. Not to mention the fact that the product is, you know, a person! What really made me guffaw in this article, though, was the studios trying to pass some of this off as insurance against a cast member passing away. “Glad to have you on board with this production. Now can we get a quick scan of you in case you die?”

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14 Responses to “Actors are leading the charge against AI: ‘we’re speaking for everyone’”

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  1. Roop says:

    The body scanning has been going on for a while, too. In Reddit’s Acting board, many people have posted questions related to this – usually they are on set at that moment, usually don’t have an agent, and either are being offered a little bit of money (like $300) for this “extra opportunity” or they are just being told “ok now you’re going to the body scanner for a couple of shots, it won’t take long.” So sometimes these people show up on the Reddit board to ask what this is and if it is legal. Because no one on set will tell them honestly what it is, or what their image could be used for in the future.

    It’s scary!!

  2. Flowerlake says:

    AI is creepy and it’s not working nearly as well in many cases as some people think

  3. TarteAuCitron says:

    How would award seasons & red carpet events work if the leads were AI-generated? “The award for Best AI Actor goes to….” It gives me the creeps.

    • Eurydice says:

      How would all of it work? Actors are treated like commodities, both by the industry and the audience – but they’re still people. The entertainment industry is huge – what about agents and managers? So how would the marketing work? The fashion world – the Met Gala – the celebrity sites, Instagram? AI784X is divorcing AI929Z?

    • Aurelia says:

      These award shows will be canceled.

  4. Lara (The Other) says:

    I don’t think we will be able to get the AI Genie back into the bottle, and for writing boring generic texts it’s really helpful. Similiar to the invention of the steam engine, electricity and computer it can improve the workplace by removing anoying and repetitive work.
    What we need is an overhaul of the whole copyright law, a right to your own face and body you can sell for certain AI uses for a fair compensation, a compensation if your work is used to train AI etc..
    The concept of copyrights and patents is not new and has been the basis for fuctional industries for ages, don’t be fooled by the cooperations who want to go back to the lawless times of the robber barons.
    For those interested, the book surveilance capitalism has good insights into the mechanisms of the large cooperations.

    • Eurydice says:

      Yes, this isn’t just AI, it’s creators in general. For example, when you sign up for YouTube, you give away the rights to your content – they can repackage your videos and post them as their own.

      • Lara (The Other) says:

        My hubby works as a programmer and is fairly active on stack overflow, writing opern source code for the community. Now AIs trained on programmer forums are fairly good at programming code, basically using the free work to create a commercial programm to replace the programmers.
        For him it’s not a real problem, the new jobs will be asking the AI the right questions and describing what it should do (which is not an easy task), but we we have to hold to cooperation responsible for the material they used and we need a plan how to handle the changes how work is done and create a safety net for those who are left behind by the new technologies.
        I’m affraid without a plan how to handle those immmense changes and the disinformation campaings possioble through AI, the western democracies will not survive.
        But I also belive, if we can get a grip and a public discussion how we handel AI and copyright, AI can improve a lot of things.

      • Eurydice says:

        @Lara (The Other) – I agree. I don’t think we’ve fully absorbed Y2K and the internet yet, let along all the technological changes since. So much disruption and dislocation – it’s really like the Industrial Revolution, which was over 80 years and changed the balance of power in the world. Of course, everything is much faster now, but I don’t see that our policy makers are prepared. Technology is tools and I’m all for that, but humans like to use tools for exploitation, too.

    • Blithe says:

      For many though, the computer, electricity, and possibly even the steam engine actually INCREASED annoying, boring, and repetitive work. In fields like mine, demands for statistics and data input as well as electronic records of multiple kinds has made an enjoyable, client-centered and challenging field one that is now often tedious, and expensive — since it takes time that could be otherwise devoted to direct service. It also increases the chances of a data breach.

      I appreciate your excellent points re: overhauling copyright law. I’ll look for “Surveillance Capitalism “ today. Thanks for the recommendation!

  5. Aurelia says:

    It’s not just extras that will be relaced. It will be the main actors. The whole shebang. And all models. The AI will be flawless. We won’t be able to tell the difference. These fakes will have crafted fake resumes and social media with fake friends and families and pets too.

    • Tree says:

      This pass weekend most of the news article pictures have featured A.I people for diversity sake. It’s very misleading.

  6. TeamMeg says:

    If Hollywood goes full AI, that may be the end of the movie industry as we know it. On the other hand, I’m thinking live theater may be set to make a tremendous comeback. Lead actors in plays and musicals probably won’t make anywhere near the huge dollars they do in pictures, but the profession will stay alive… and give a lot of joy and satisfaction, both to performers and audiences. Especially if reboots of things like traveling summer stock productions, revue shows and even vaudeville take off. Budgets needn’t be huge. Keep sets simple, and keep ticket prices down to $25 or less. “If you build it, they will come!”

  7. Tree says:

    In the future a government will have to dismantle googke. There are too many people and not enough jobs already. And let’s talk about the data breaches!!