Artificial intelligence is sweeping almost every industry, and the never ending discourse about it highlights conflicted feelings of fear and excitement for insiders, and an understandable level of wariness for people who aren’t fully sure of what AI can do. In Hollywood, vulnerable creators in every position within the industry are worried about the inevitable rise of the new technology. They foresee a shift in the workforce and, subsequently, in the content that is created and disseminated to the masses. The AI (r)evolution is here, and we couldn’t stop it if we wanted to. But is there a way to make space for both mankind and machine?
When many of us think of artificial intelligence, a very distinct image comes to mind: a dystopian reality in which humans become second class citizens, crushed under the force of machines that they created to improve the world. Hollywood projects over the years have dreamed up what the worst case hypothetical scenarios of a robot revolution could look like, and it’s not pretty. From I, Robot to Westworld to The Creator to the entire Matrix franchise, one of many writers’ worst fears about AI is that the people behind the technology could quickly lose control of it, forcing us into a perpetual war with an enemy that can predict our every move. These machines are smarter than us because we programmed them to be, and because we designed them to be ever-evolving, they’re always ten steps ahead of us. In this apocalyptic scenario, AI is king.
That hypothetical is terrifying, but for now, it’s just fiction. Still, though the rise of AI probably looks a lot less like a YA dystopian novel, we don’t have to imagine the total end of the world as we know it to understand why folks are so apprehensive about it. Experts in the field have been closely monitoring the present and future outcomes of an AI-integrated society, and many of them are unsettled about what it could do to our reality. In a June 2023 Pew Research survey of AI professionals, 79% of participants admitted to feeling “more concerned than excited” about what the technological could have in store for the coming years, noting a number of “future harms” — to our individual and collective mental health, to our institutions, and even to our human rights — that could be difficult to navigate.
Programmers stress that robots have no emotions or prejudices (the 2013 film Her might beg to differ), but the people behind-the-scenes piecing together the recipes and automated formulas that drive AI certainly do. And when these intersections of identity color the algorithm, they can result in lines of code that serve to affirm hegemonic disparities. We’ve seen it happen, too — in the automated sinks and paper towel dispensers that can’t seem to detect darker skin tones no matter how fast or slow we wave our hands in front of them, in the AI systems that perpetuate housing discrimination against people of color and lower-income applicants in their screening processes, and in the state-implemented policing tools that (often incorrectly) predict which demographics are most likely to commit crimes, subsequently promoting racial profiling of certain communities. Because of the biases of coders and developers, AI isn’t immune to any of the -isms that we grapple with in our day to day lives, meaning that those pitfalls are often unavoidable in its functions as well.
In the entertainment world, those implications can’t be understated, particularly when it comes to the ongoing struggle for equity. One of the foremost concerns that many of the experts in the Pew Research survey shared was that developments in AI will likely lead to significant job losses, and for Hollywood, the thought of the overutilization of technology further undermining the hard efforts of marginalized people is especially unnerving. Professionals in the industry who find themselves underrepresented are already fighting an uphill battle with the old guard, desperately trying to prove that their presence and their work are marketable to mass audiences. With AI in the picture, the rat race only gets harder to run — and more impossible to win. Just think of those odds if you happen to be a woman, Black, dark-skinned, fat, queer, or disabled. Think of those odds if you happen to identify with several of those categories.
The suits in those boardrooms don’t care about the authenticity of the narrative or about the real stories that inspired the characters. What will they do to make sure that we don't get erased?”
At a time when Black media seems to be disappearing into thin air, it’s not a stretch to forecast that Black talent across the industry could be among the first to be impacted by the integration of AI. After all, anti-Blackness is already deeply ingrained in the AI systems that already exist, thanks to their creators. That’s why Aisha*, a young Black screenwriter who just started in the film industry, feels that it’s more important than ever for studios to lean into people and art, not programs and algorithms. “The suits in those boardrooms don’t care about the authenticity of the narrative or about the real stories that inspired the characters,” she vents during a phone call with Unbothered. “What will they do to make sure that we don't get erased?”
Aisha says that the threat of studios opting for AI over living, breathing creatives is constantly on in her mind, even more so these days. Sure, she knows how special her stories are, but what happens when Hollywood executives would rather go for what’s cost efficient than what’s real? “When AI like ChatGPT or Jasper or ShortlyAI can churn out scripts in half the time that I can, and at a fraction of the cost, I don’t know that I can compete,” Aisha says anxiously. “It worries me sometimes that I might get shut out of the industry before I ever really get started. It’s hard enough to get a foot in the door as it is, but adding AI to the situation makes things even more difficult.”
Aisha’s not alone in her unease. Stephen*, a professional in the software space, is of two minds about the place of AI in Hollywood, despite working closely with it himself. On one hand, he muses, we can’t afford to catastrophize it or ignore it totally, but on the other, it’s essential that it’s regulated appropriately. He just isn’t sure that, given its history of prioritizing capital over creativity, this industry has the ability to ensure that happens.
“I don’t know that AI has a place in entertainment unless it’s being used primarily to expound on something that’s already created and completed by an actual person,” he argues, advocating for specific checks and balances on the advancements where it concerns the media. “Allowing AI too much access in this space can potentially be irresponsible and unsafe. We’re putting ourselves in a compromising position if we integrate AI to the point that its contributions are more than that of actual human beings.”
This stance is shared by many creatives working in media who have started to predict a future where the evolving technology could very realistically infringe on their rights. Notably, anxieties over the prospect of AI taking over have been at the forefront of the controversy that had Hollywood in a deadlock for nearly half of 2023 during the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Amongst the other demands that they were fighting for during the strike, writers made sure to request certain assurances (preventing AI from writing or rewriting literary material, not allowing AI to to be used as source material, and banning the use of agreement covered material as a resource to train AI) that studios would limit the reach of AI in their content, and after a five-month stalemate, both sides reached an agreement, including a host of specific conditions under which AI cannot interfere with their work. In front of the camera, SAG-AFTRA members chose to strike for their own issues, which also included concerns about AI edging into their territory. (A bargain was made in the end, but not everyone in the union was pleased about the verbiage in the agreement; some felt that the clauses left too much room for AI to work around.)
The pushback against AI is widespread across industries: record labels citing “copyright violations” on those recreating their artists’ voices in AI-created songs, models criticizing the increasing usage of digitized models over human talent in fashion campaigns, and game developers fretting that AI tools will render them irrelevant, just to name a few. Those in the entertainment world who are wary of how AI is poised to change the landscape are wondering whether Hollywood executives will be diligent about placing explicit parameters around its legal limitations to protect their intellectual property and their right to be compensated fairly for their work. Others worry about the individual and societal implications of content created by algorithms, fearing that their very likeness could be recreated without their consent at anytime for any reason — a totally understandable fear, considering the troubling trend of deepfakes (Oprah is not selling y’all hair growth oil on Beyoncé’s internet) and the zombification of long-gone artists to turn a profit. All throughout Hollywood, there is valid concern over why, when, where, and how AI will be implemented — and to whose detriment.
Allowing AI too much access in this space can potentially be irresponsible and unsafe. We’re putting ourselves in a compromising position if we integrate AI to the point that its contributions are more than that of actual human beings.
The question then becomes: what, if anything, can be done about AI? It is an inevitability in our society at this point, and Hollywood bigwigs clearly plan to continue tapping into its capabilities in order to rake in even more millions. But as much as we have to fear concerning the developing technology, AI advocates point out that we do also have things to look forward to when it comes to what it can potentially accomplish in Hollywood (and, bigger picture, in the world). If we can’t beat the AI wave, we might as well ride it and try to accomplish something truly productive. And if it must be done, it must be done ethically.
“It feels like AI is being forced upon us, but in truth, it’s sort of necessary in keeping up with the inventive nature of our culture,” explains Stephen. “Its place in our world is optimizing how we live, but unfortunately, there are some negative consequences of introducing AI to society. At the end of the day, though, it’s the application of this technology that truly determines what makes it ethical or not.”
So what’s the “ethical” use of AI in the entertainment world? There’s unfortunately not one black and white or straightforward answer, as evidenced by the impasse that prolonged the writers and actors strikes. What we do know is that AI in itself typically isn’t the problem — the issue is how its coded and how its functions are used — which means that we have to be intentional about what we do with it for it to yield positive results. The most ethical application of the different types of AI would probably involve an integration strategy that acts to support the work that’s already being done by people in these industries for, as Stephen surmised, “optimization.” Think of apps like Boomy that make music production more accessible to amateurs looking to create instrumentals without the expensive equipment or hundred thousand dollar fees charged by A-list producers. Or Storia, an AI program filmmakers can use to create detailed storyboards pre-production. Or Parfait, the AI-driven wig company that should be in every Hollywood hair stylist’s repertoire to ensure that bad TV wigs on Black talent are a thing of the past. These AI processes and so many others can be effective as tools for advancement used in tandem with human contributions, rather than automating them entirely.
Hollywood hasn’t quite yet managed to create an equitable industry for its creatives, many of whom are still having to fight tooth and nail for a seat at the table, and the incorporation of AI threatens to intensify that struggle even further. But a media landscape laced with AI shouldn’t have to be utterly apocalyptic because there are benefits to working with these developing technologies. The only way to prevent AI from taking over, and effectively preventing a bizarre reality straight out of a sci-fi thriller starring Will Smith, is to prioritize the people doing the work and creating more avenues for them to do so.
*Names have been changed for privacy
R29Unbothered continues its look at Black culture’s tangled history of Black identity, style, and contributions to the culture with ROOTS, our annual Black History Month series. In 2024, we’re exploring artificial intelligence — the good and the bad — while celebrating where our past, present, and future meet.