Character actor and Milton resident Tom Kemp has appeared in nearly 100 movies and TV shows since 1978, often playing gray-haired men of authority. And though he’s old enough to collect a pension from the actors’ union, Kemp plans to keep on working.
“They’ll always need judges,” he said. “They’ll always need senators and grandfathers.”
But not if they replace actors like Kemp with digital avatars generated by artificial intelligence systems. And Kemp says that’s what US film and TV producers have in mind.
The fear of being replaced by software is a big reason why Kemp and thousands of other members of SAG-AFTRA, the TV and movie performers union, went on strike last week. They joined striking screenwriters of the Writers Guild of America, who fear that film producers will someday use AI programs like ChatGPT to crank out movie scripts on command.
The showdown is the first major US strike where AI systems are on the bargaining table. While a stack of other issues — including pay — is at stake, the dispute over AI and its reach into the workplace makes the walkout historic, analysts said.
“It’s a revolutionary moment in labor relations,” said Daron Acemoğlu, a professor of labor economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
As usual with revolutions, nobody knows how it will turn out. And it’s unclear whether the outcome of the conflict will serve as a guide to future disputes over AI in the workplace. The screenwriters and actors have strong unions to fight for limits to the use of AI systems, but only about 11 percent of US workers belong to unions.
Kemp, who is on the SAG-AFTRA negotiating team, said that he was at a meeting where representatives of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the trade group negotiating for the studios, said they wanted the right to make digital scans of actors’ faces and bodies. These could be used in “reshoots,” when a director needs to add material to a movie after filming has been completed — an idea that Kemp considered acceptable.
But Kemp said the producers also wanted the right to keep the digital scans for use in future movies. With AI software, these scanned images could be programmed to move around and speak dialog in the actor’s original voice. The plan, Kemp said, was to “use that synthetic actor in other movies and other television shows forever, without getting the consent of that actor, or paying him a dime.”
The producers group did not respond to requests for comment. But last week, it said in a statement that performers would have to give permission for the reuse of their digital avatars. The statement said nothing about whether the performers would be paid for reuse.
Screenwriters, meanwhile, fear that their earlier works could be used against them. Producers could tap libraries of existing screenplays to train AI to write movie scripts, union officials said, leaving only a few jobs for human writers — mostly in low-paid editing work.
“I think we can presume that this is the dream of some of our corporate overlords,” said Writers Guild negotiator James Schamus, who co-wrote the screenplay for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” “Feed in some prompts, press a button and have a screenplay.”
Schamus said his union wants contract language requiring writers to be notified and paid before their previous works could be used to train an AI. In addition, a human brought in to rewrite AI-generated material would be credited as the writer of the work and be paid accordingly.
Striking screenwriter Kim Benabib, co-creator of the HBO series “The Brink,” concedes that AI-written screenplays probably won’t be masterpieces. “I don’t think anyone believes that AI is going to write the next great Emmy-award winning zeitgeist show,” he said.
But he added, “a Hallmark holiday movie could be written by AI.”
Today, writing for such mundane shows is a standard pathway for new writers to build their resumes and hone their craft. “That’s where you break in,” Benabib said. “All of these things at the margins are how careers get started.”
Indeed, that excessive reliance on AI writing could harm Hollywood in the long run by choking its traditional talent pipeline, Benabib said. But he fears that producers aren’t thinking about the long run. “They’re very focused on the next quarter’s earnings and may not have a longer-term vision,” he said.
By joining forces, the writers and actors unions have gained the upper hand, said Acemoğlu, the MIT economist. “That’s a pretty powerful bloc,” he said. “They have a very good chance of winning because they have brought the whole industry to a standstill.”
But the nearly 90 percent of US workers without unions have nowhere near the clout to demand limits on AI that might threaten their jobs. And, Acemoğlu noted, workers whose jobs are at risk are scattered among many knowledge-based industries, including legal research, accounting, graphic design, and education. Organizing them all would be extremely difficult. “I don’t think we have a model for this,” Acemoğlu said.
Kemp, the character actor, said that the unions’ fight should serve as a warning that AI tools are destined to challenge workers in every sector of the economy.
“This is coming for you,” said Kemp, “not just us.”