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.

Behind the Scenes · Spinward Fringe

Samurai Squadron: Writing Minh-Chu

Man jumping between rocks. Overcome a problem, challenge, and hope for a better future. 3D illustration

This was originally released on Patreon during the Samurai Squadron serial. It’s a little piece about what it was like to write from Minh-Chu’s perspective. For the curious ones only, enjoy!

Minh-Chu is a complex character who is much more charming than I am. That’s not really the problem with writing his character though. I can consider what he says for a lot longer than it takes to type it, hours if I have to, so I can try to be Minh-Chu charming.

The biggest problem with writing a character like Minh-Chu is that he’s been a favourite in relatively low doses for many books. I haven’t written from his perspective in about a decade. Coming back to the character means that I have to write what he thinks and how he feels between those quotable moments and weighty conversations. So far I’ve enjoyed putting him at the centre of this book, but it hasn’t been easy.

I”ve been writing him a certain way, as someone who carefully chooses when to speak and how. This is why.

There are three things that are key to this novel and don’t worry, I won’t spoil the story for you. The first is family. That is made more difficult because Ayan, Little Laura, and Minh-Chu’s sister are all absent. It’s made easier because the extended family is established and interesting. The second key is the establishments. The Rebel Captains, Haven Nation’s expansion through the Nodes and Privateering Initiative, and the Order of Eden. The third key is conflict. Minh-Chu is the character who will see all of these things. That is the point of his story in the first part of this season of the series. So, he’s watching and performing what he sees as his duty right now.

Along the way, I hope to do him justice. I have to write Minh-Chu as he is after experiencing so much since we were last in his head. He’s been a Wing Commander for a while now, and he’s settled into a relationship with Ashley who has discovered that she has a sister of a kind. How he gets along with and views Jake and his other close friends have evolved as well, so showing that takes time and has to be done right. I hope that I’ve gone some distance towards accomplishing that because most of the book is written now. Thankfully, he’ll be in the middle of the next novel.

The last important thing about Minh-Chu in this volume is simple and incredibly important. By the end of the book, he’ll have something to say about what he’s seen. I hope you’re looking forward to it. What did you think of this non-spoiler peek behind-the-scenes?

Behind the Scenes · Spinward Fringe

Samurai Squadron: About Some Of The Research

Sci-fi space background – two planets in space, glowing mysterious nebula in universe. Elements of this image furnished by NASA

Whenever I’m about to, or am writing a book, I always do some kind fo research. You’d think that after about fifteen years I wouldn’t have to do any preparation for a book in the Spinward Fringe universe, but that’s absolutely not true. In the following piece that was first relased on Patreon some time ago, I describe and discuss what some of that research was. Strictly for the curious, enjoy!

Cult Research

First of all, I’m done. Every year part of prepping for most of the Spinward Fringe books has included about 10-20 hours of research on cults. Sometimes it spills over into more because I find the topic interesting, but when I was getting ready to work on Samurai Squadron I went deeper into the topic than ever. I wanted the ultimate answer to; “Why do people join?”

I had a lot of information already, but I had to find accounts from reformed members, read a few biographies and watch specific documentaries that focus on the topic of leaving organizations. Finally, a former cult member and well-known de-programmer’s interviews and book brought all the information together so I could finish constructing the anatomy of the Order of Eden as a cult. The experience that Minh-Chu had in the last section of the novel was a very shortened tour through the early introduction (indoctrination) that the Order is trying to put into play across the Rose System and beyond was meant to show a different ruthless side of the organization. It was also there to deliver a simple point so the Order might seem more personally dangerous to him and perhaps the reader: There is a cult for everyone.

Now, after over a decade, I’m finished researching the topic. I don’t know everything there is to know about it, not even close, but I have what I need to write the final structure for the Order and get on with the bigger story that the work is meant to support.

Researching Fighter Pilots

Over two years ago now, I started thinking that I’d like to write at least one book that focused more on Samurai Squadron. I started looking for biographies from modern pilots and found one from Robin Olds along with several others. That amazing bio about a pilot who flew in World War II as well as Vietnam was a great start. It started me on a reading and documentary binge that changed my preconceptions and led me back to one question. Who would my main character be for Samurai Squadron? The answer seemed obvious, Minh-Chu, but I hadn’t extensively written from his perspective for a decade and there’s a rule with including too much of a favourite character in a book. Don’t do it. Some characters are amazing in small doses, but spoiled when you get a good look at their troubles and more serious side.

Before I started work on Broadcast 17, I had an idea that led to the Bullet Chasers, and I took the opportunity to write Breaker, a new pilot who might become a main character for Samurai Squadron. I liked him, and I still do, but when it came to actually writing Broadcast 18, I knew I had to centre the book on Minh-Chu, even if it meant ruining the character and killing the series. I was hoping that all the research I’d done would pay off because after reading the biographies of three Wing Commanders, I realized that they all had a sort of swagger about them, but I could include a kind of sensitivity that suited Minh-Chu perfectly. 

He is not the kind of person who includes himself in everyone’s lives unless something is going terribly wrong or he’s invited. He also enjoys challenging people and providing mentorship, even if it’s simply by being an example. Some of the best leaders I read about were very much like that, so I felt I could extend his character. There was also a long arc I could embark on with him.

I’m thankful that so many service people put the time and work into talking about and writing about their experiences. I’m grateful for their service as well.

Researching Spinward Fringe

That’s right. Spinward Fringe is over two million words long now. I was a different person in many ways when I wrote Broadcast 0, Broadcast 6.5, and Broadcast 16. I’m not saying that I’m a walking whirlwind of change, but I know a lot more about writing than I did fifteen years ago, and I’ve had a few more experiences.

As I started writing Broadcast 17: Clash I was wrapping up a complete re-read of the series. I was also listening to the audiobooks, which I’m starting again as I write Broadcast 19. In my opinion, my favourite books in the first half of the series are in the Rogue Element Trilogy: Broadcasts 5, 6, and 7. The drama of the characters fighting for the Triton, the Victory Machine, and finding a new home come together in a way that I’m pretty proud of. That got me thinking.

Minh-Chu has been on the sidelines for so long that I could almost re-introduce him as a new character, extending his arc over three books. My research showed me that turning it into a tutorial on “how to be an effective Wing Commander” would be a terrible idea. I’ve never been one. I shouldn’t even try flying a plane because I have compromised vision! The best I could do is write about what it’s like to be Minh-Chu the person and I could layer in detail about his job later. I’ve done this before with Jake and Alice, holding back detail on the inner workings of the military by focusing on what interested them, and the adventure.

So, the plan became apparent. start with light detail in the first book. I wanted to show everyone what a briefing is like in general because Minh-Chu has been a part of hundreds of them, it’s a regular part of his life. How he used the new technology in his fighter was important, but we could get to the deck crew who maintains it later. This, like the first novella in the entire series, Freeground, and like the first part of the Rogue Element Trilogy, Fracture, would be short and fast-paced.

He’s not alone, either, so I had to make room for Ashley. Their relationship has calmed down, so she’s as much a best friend as a lover. I wanted to have her presence there but since it was the first book in this new trilogy, I intended to keep it light. Later she was included in the mission to Gold Haf Station because she was actually well suited for it. I also wanted to include her as a fighter pilot one more time, even if there wasn’t a lot of detail in that battle. It was new territory for me in a way since there’s almost no real-life account of someone flying with their girlfriend in the same fighter squadron in the real world. I might explore that a little more, but I don’t know if I’ll use Minh-Chu and Ashley.

So, I’ve rambled a while, thank you for reading. I’m realizing that there are other topics of research that I’m always checking in on. Space exploration, technology, storytelling techniques, life and the universe. I could go on for another three thousand words, but I should save something for later since I like writing these little features.

Since I’m going into more detail about Minh-Chu’s life and times in this book, I’d like to end with a question: What did you think of how Minh-Chu was depicted in Broadcast 18: Samurai Squadron?