A.I. May Write Your Next Favourite Show

Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

The title is more than clickbait. It’s something that I’ve come to believe as an absolute fact. Somewhere in the English-speaking world, probably in California, there is a producer or Workgroup (not writers), working pretty hard. What they’re doing is using an artificial intelligence to invent the concept for a series and then script all the episodes. The content of this article is opinion only. Let’s unpack that title and extrapolate a little further.

Why call the people responsible a Workgroup?

Well, I say a workgroup is doing this because the Writers Guild of America is on strike right now. The workgroup could be called anything that gets around the strike, and is made up of producers, software developers, or any other collective that wouldn’t be considered writers. In my opinion, these people are still scabs, doing work that a writer should be doing. That’s because AI is only a tool that can assist in writing, but still requires a human to prompt it. I concede that this “workgroup” could be only one person, but we’re splitting hairs there.

How does this work?

The person or group who are developing this TV show ask an artificial intelligence several questions about what the most popular, cost-effective, or successful tv show. Next they would most likely select several of the replies that reflect the audience demographics they’re most interested in. Using a cross section of the shows that fit what they want along with other fundamental references such as books on writing for TV, articles and even positive reviews, they would start developing a pilot script. This would take time to tweak, most likely a day or so, but a script would eventually be created.

The rest of the teleplays would be made using similar prompting, revising, re-prompting, and so on until a season is finished. In the example I’m writing out here, no actual writer would be allowed anywhere near this TV show. Why? For the gimmick of it.

The first TV show written by an AI. An upcoming boast.

There’s a race on. Some people want to be the first to make that boast. I’d bet my career on it. There are producers who would love to make a television series using underpaid software developers or AI prompters instead of a writer’s room. Furthermore, hype is critical for the launch of most TV series, and you can always turn heads by claiming that your show is the first to do something or feature just about anything, especially if it’s controversial. At the time of this writing, AI is still a very active topic in the media. Would this succeed? I hope not, but the attention it could bring to a network or streaming service may be worth it to a studio.

The road to terrible (or great) autonomy in entertainment.

Let’s move ahead five years. Say this TV show written by an AI is successful enough to run for a few seasons. Other studios will most likely try it themselves. In this possible future, a percentage of TV will be AI-assisted or generated. Compare it to Reality TV. When it came along a lot of people were worried that it would take over and make scripted TV an afterthought for most networks. That didn’t happen, but there is still plenty of Reality TV around. I predict that the same could happen with AI-authored* TV. A success, a surge, then a period of calming down to normalcy.

Now let’s move on another ten years. At this point we’d start seeing a broad detrimental effect for everyone involved in making television and movie entertainment. Let me explain.

Imagine being able to buy or borrow an AI or software suite that can make a TV show just for you. All you have to do is tell a program about your favourite television shows, movies, share a few personal details, reactions to a set of stimuli (images, sounds, short videos), and then the artificial intelligence will get to work. Let’s use Star Trek as an example. I would complete this program’s five minute calibration program so it could get a sense of my general taste. Then I would tell it to use the original Star Trek series, The Next Generation, DS-Nine, Voyager as its source along with everyone on my social media account. I would tell it to use those shows as a source for a new time travelling adventure show featuring William Riker as the main character for at least half the episodes and friends from my social media streams would appear as minor background characters. That’s a narrow example, but you get the point. I’d definitely earmark myself as that actor who keeps popping up as a red shirt every few episodes.

As the show plays I’d be able to tell the AI what I like and dislike about it while you’re watching or afterwards. It’ll make the required adjustments and you can have as many episodes of your tv show as you like – 70 seasons and a movie? – and even remix favourite episodes into new ones. Imagine a special Lower Decks episode starring you and your friends based on how they behave online. Add the ability to tell the AI what happens next, or to play as an active character in the show using virtual or augmented reality, and you have an experience that is so unique and difficult to compete with that it could replace most of the television and gaming industry. Expand my narrow Star Trek example into a show that uses all your favourite shows, movies, people and things to create something that attempts to resemble nothing you’ve seen before, and you run into real trouble for the industry. The AI may provide such a deep, broad mix of things in a personalized piece of entertainment that it seems completely new. Is it? Well, that’s a question for another day.

Perhaps this is just a new industry and only a big step in entertainment progress. That happens, and it could be great. The problem is that your custom TV show was made without writers, actors, directors, crew, and it would only employ a few software developers. You may argue that this could be a service that requires a subscription, but there will always be a massive group of people who would rather steal the software or develop an off-market version that is free or pirated. It’s possible that this industry could be worth more than any other in the entertainment sphere, but also provide so much free entertainment that all but a few studios go out of business within a few years. There could be a minor revival of ‘artisan entertainment’ that’s made entirely by human hands, but it may never surpass the size of the AI generated entertainment industry that marginalized human work.

The Rise of the Entertainment Designer

Let’s take this one step further. In Earnest Cline’s novel, Ready Player One, users of the Oasis can make their own TV-like channel that features all their favourite classic shows. I believe that something similar may appear. Like a Youtube channel, you may find a place that will feature TV shows, movies, and interactive experiences that are designed by people using AI authoring for everyone to use. The thing that will determine how many subscribers or views these channels get will be taste, style, and momentary alignment with the ideas of the day. Very little effort will be required from these AI manipulation masters or Entertainment Designers to create this content, so the places that feature thier work will be flooded.

Will that be bad? Perhaps writers and directors will find a way to use future AI tools to create compelling content, especially if they can add their own creative material to it. Some writers are trying to do that now, using AI as assistants that can finish their sentences as they write, or remix ideas that they’ve had. I haven’t bothered with it and I doubt I will for years, at least not with my main series, especially since there are major ethical problems with most artificial intelligences when it comes to creative projects. AI’s use the art of thousands of humans to regurgitate something they present as “new,” even when they’re just helping you write a book.

My Current Nightmare

My main series, Spinward Fringe, is over two million words long. Someday someone is going to shove all that into an AI chatbot or writebot (I’d trademark that if I could afford it!) and tell it to write the next book. My work isn’t public domain, so that’s illegal in some places, and may be outlawed more universally soon. Would I be obsolete? No, because everything I’ve done in the Spinward Fringe series doesn’t represent everything I will do with it, and an AI can’t predict everything I’m planning (yet!). I still fear that something like that would put me out of a job, even though I know there would be a few faithful readers left.

Can we derail progress in this direction?

AI is here, and right now you can compare it to fairly basic tools. It’ll get better, and I don’t think there’s a way to stop that. I’m excited about it and looking forward to see what these narrow AI’s can do. I think it’s interesting. We’re going to see a lot of benefits from this technology, so I don’t think stopping the development of AI is possible or particularly wise in general.

Having said that, I believe it’s important to show AI developers where they should and shouldn’t tread. Laws have to be drawn up and intellectual property protection systems have to be updated. How? Well, I’d like to see existing copyrighted works like mine to be protected by default. There are millions of creative people who have rights that assure that they can make a living and create more art for us. There are a lot of things I’m not addressing here, I’m sure, but I’m no legal expert, so I’ll stop there.

Hopefully, the Writer’s Guild of America can negotiate AI out of most of their industry, at least until people have calmed down and realize that AI is only a tool that can be used to help us. Not for regurgitating what has come before in ways that take earnings away from the people who worked on the source material or could produce something better.

If we do this right artificial intelligence can be a real benefit to all of us, whether you’re using it as a personal assistant or to help you do research for your next screenplay. Laws could protect people who are creating something interesting while opening the door for AI to dig into public domain and other content that isn’t critical to someone’s living to make something else. I’d love to see what a future AI comes up with if I ask it to turn A Tale of Two Cities into a musical starring Charlie Chaplan. I don’t know if it would be any good, but it would be interesting and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be stepping on someone else’s toes.

So, here’s the controversial question: What TV or movie series would you dump into a future AI so you could get more episodes or a derivative?

*AI Authored is a term that’s been coming up more and more recently. It refers to a misunderstood aspect of current AI, that it is being creative. At the moment, all artificial intelligences require a database of material (writing, images, videos, sounds, facts, etc…) to refer to in order to remix, combine or rephrase so it can provide what you’ve requested. Nothing is being created, or put through an authoring proces. It’s a regurgitation styled by the program.

Randolph Lalonde is a Canadian author who has been making a living as a self-published author for fifteen years and has released over thirty novels. He’s best known for the Spinward Fringe Space Opera series and recently released Psycho Electric, a cyberpunk ebook and audiobook that, among other things, examines the intersection of social media and AI on a grand scale.