AI (artificial intelligence) was a key issue in the recent Hollywood actors' and writers' strikes for two reasons. One, the worry that union workers might be replaced with AI generated actors and scripts (AI as competition), and two, the claim that actors and writers should be compensated because AI in some way copies their faces and scripts (AI as infringement).
I'm not sure that AI is an issue for actors. CGI images are an issue, because they increasingly resemble real people who might compete with actors. But is that really AI? As I understand the term, AI is when a computer creates something that it wasn't specifically programed to do; it uses its own logic and data base of knowledge to create something original. AI image generators do exist, but AI is not required to create CGI images.
AI poses a greater threat to writers. Theoretically, I can foresee a day in which an AI program writes an original play the equal of Hamlet. Of course, most Hollywood scripts are formulaic hack work that fall far short of Hamlet, so perhaps writers' cause for concern is more urgent.
How good are AI's literary skills today?
Plenty of free AI generators exist online. I assume that Hollywood studios and Big Tech firms have access to more advanced programs, but I tried the AI generator at Toolbaz.com, just to test its skills.
I input "Christian crusader knight defeats Muslims." Many online AI generators claim to filter out "hate" but, at least for now, Toolbaz had no issue with Christians defeating Muslims. Here is the story that Toolbaz wrote for me:
John was a Christian crusader knight who had been sent to the Middle East to defend the Christian faith against the Muslim forces. He had been training in the art of war for many years and was prepared to do whatever it took to uphold the Christian faith.
For weeks, John clashed with the Muslim forces, but the tide of battle was not in his favor. The Muslim forces were much larger and better equipped than he was, and it seemed unlikely that he would be able to win the fight.
But then, something changed. While on a scouting mission, John stumbled upon a secret weapon that belonged to the Muslim forces. He studied the weapon and realized that it could be used to his advantage. With the help of his allies, he was able to turn the tide of battle and eventually defeat the Muslim forces.
The victory was a great one for John and the Christian faith. The people of the Middle East praised him for his courage and strength, and many of them converted to Christianity in the wake of his victory. John was hailed as a hero and remembered in Christian history for centuries to come.
Okay, that's not terrible. Grammar and spelling are accurate. The story structure is solid. A protagonist seeks a goal. He encounters conflict. He is about to be defeated. But then, by his own actions and some luck, he overcomes adversity and wins.
Not bad. But not Hamlet. The story is solid, but hackneyed and unoriginal. Nuance and details are also lacking. Even so, this story can serve as an outline for a hack writer to flesh out. Certainly, the story is no more hackneyed than thousands of direct-to-video and made-for cable movies.
I can see how AI might provide ideas and outlines for hack writers suffering from writer's block. A sitcom writer once told me the staff writers on his show kept a supply of old TV Guides. Whenever they were stuck for ideas, they perused the episode descriptions of past sitcoms.
Ever notice how so many sitcoms have episodes in which the characters defend themselves in court rather than hire an attorney, or compete with jealous coworkers for an award? How so many sitcoms still borrow ideas from I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners? No wonder hack writers fear AI.
But if writers can't stop AI, they can still demand compensation from tech and media companies. The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Association offered a typical argument for such compensation in their statement to the U.S. Copyright Office, on October 30, 2023:
The current crop of artificial intelligence systems owes a great debt to the work of creative human beings. Vast amounts of copyrighted creative work, collected and processed without regard to the moral and legal rights of its creators, have been copied into and used by these systems that appear to produce new creative work. These systems would not exist without the work of creative people, and certainly would not be capable of some of their more startling successes.
I was a member of SFWA for about ten years. It's their mission to lobby for writers' interests. But their argument is erroneous. They argue that because AI learns from reading writers' books and scripts, these writers should be compensated.
But that's how all writers learn their craft, AI and human.
In Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury discusses his youth, when he was a voracious consumer of culture, both popular and literary. It's how he learned to write.
When did it all really begin? The writing, that is. Everything came together in the summer and fall and early winter of 1932. By that time I was stuffed full of Buck Rogers, the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the night-time radio serial "Chandu the Magician." Chandu said magic and the psychic summons and the Far East and strange places which made me sit down every night and from memory write out the scripts of each show. ...
If I hadn't stuffed my eyes and stuffed my head with all of the above for a lifetime, when it came round to word-associating myself into story ideas, I would have brought up a ton of ciphers and a half-ton of zeros.
Read the entire book. Bradbury cites many novels, comics, films, and radio programs as influences. His point is, he learned how and what to write by absorbing other writers, filmmakers and artists. The same way all children learn to write and think. The same way AI learns to write and think.
Many writers were voracious readers as children. The books that went into us shaped our literary tastes, skills and sensibilities. AI can be compared to a child who reads hundreds of books (or with AI, tens of thousands), absorbs them, and then uses his own mind (the computer's algorithms) to create something original.
When a human learns to write by reading books, that's a Fair Use of those books. No copyright is infringed. No additional payments are owed to the writers of those books. Just the one time cover price.
The same logic applies when an AI program learns to write by reading books. It's a Fair Use of those books. No copyright is infringed. You would think that science fiction writers would understand that.
It's not what human writers want to hear; they want royalties from AI programs. But applying the doctrine of Fair Use to AI learning is logical. Any Vulcan would agree.