ChatGPT: Digital writing partner or machine brain that will replace us all?

It used to be the argument in favour of machines replacing human workers was the bots would do the menial labour, freeing people up for more creative and leisurely pursuits. Now Artificial Intelligence is coming for the fun jobs. We spoke with Robert C. Cooper and Elan Mastai, two industry veterans with sci-fi cred, about what the future holds for screenwriters in an AI world.

The entertainment industry is not most people’s prime concern when it comes to the dangers of advanced AI. But chatbots like OpenAI’s ChatGPT, Google’s Bard and Jasper Chat can now produce rudimentary screenplays with a few simple prompts. The storytelling is basic and the dialogue often terrible, but the technology is expected to improve. What does this mean for screenwriters?

Is Artificial Intelligence (AI) a useful tool that can help writers work better and faster, or are screenwriters destined to become the coal miners of the 21st century — not extinct, but struggling to prove their worth in a world where cleaner, cheaper alternatives exist?

An open letter published in late March urged a six-month pause on training next-gen systems citing AI’s potential to cause a “profound change in the history of life on Earth.” It was signed by more than 1,000 experts, including Elon Musk (SpaceX, Tesla, Twitter), Steve Wozniak (Apple’s co-founder) and Turing Prize winner Yoshua Bengio (Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms, or MILA).

Screenwriters likewise aren’t the only people trying to figure out the positive and negative impacts generative AI will have on their industries. But they may be among the most insightful — especially those who work in sci-fi, a genre that both envisions idyllic future societies and produces cautionary tales about technology run amok.

Robert C. Cooper is a Vancouver-based TV veteran who spent more than a decade as a writer, director and producer on the popular Stargate franchise, which imagined a system of portals that provide travel to the far reaches of the universe. He also worked on BBC America’s supernatural series Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and is one of the founding members of Vancouver’s Pacific Screenwriting Program.

Toronto-based Elan Mastai was a writer and producer on the NBC series This Is Us and penned the sci-fi novel All Our Wrong Todays, in which one brilliant invention allows humanity to create the shiny future imagined in 1950s sci-fi — until a mistake involving time travel ruins everything. Appropriate to the AI topic, the novel explores how every time we invent a technology (such as cars), we also invent the accident of that technology (car crashes). Mastai is in the early stages of adapting the book for Peacock with Seth MacFarlane and Amy Pascal producing.


The big question

Will Advanced AI be a helpful tool for screenwriters, or turn them into the coal miners of the 21st century?

“I'm voting that we're the coal miners,” says Cooper.

His answer has less to do with studios handing out writing assignments to chatbots than with the dilution of an already flooded content marketplace.

“You've seen the competition that's emerged as a result of the creation of streaming platforms and the slow, continued death of the networks, traditional forms of content distribution. And then what you have comparatively is a technology that is going to put content creation at the level of the studios in the hands of everyone,” says Cooper.

“I think we can all acknowledge there's a problem with content in that there's too much of it,” he continues. “We don't know where to find it and what to watch, and you need some form of help to figure out what's going to sit right in your algorithm of what you like and don't like. But what do you do when literally everyone in the world can make content that competes with Hollywood?”

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Robert C. Cooper

Mastai is more hopeful, acknowledging his feelings change depending on the last article or social media post he’s read.

“I'm equal parts enthusiastic, or intrigued anyways, as I am filled with dread and concern,” he says. “Whenever I play around with it, I'm both delighted in some ways and then also unimpressed in others. I think as the technology develops, we, as a society on a cultural level, [will] absorb its impact, which is going to take a little bit of time. Maybe check back with me every few months to see where I land.”

Mastai has had longer than most to adapt to this idea of AI as screenwriting partner. About a year ago he was invited to experiment with an earlier version of ChatGPT to create an audio drama.

“I found the experience to be totally delightful and fun,” he says. “I mean, it was very playful. It was like doing kind of an improv collaborative experience with a very quirky, fast but eccentric writing partner.”

What’s the worst that could happen?

Ask a sci-fi writer what’s the worst that could happen and get a scary answer. 

“Let me give you the science-fiction dystopian version of the problem,” Cooper says.

“We become 100 percent dependent on this to the point where we lose our ability to think on our own and someone shuts the machine off,” he says. “It's that we blow up the machine because we're afraid of it. Or a giant EM [electromagnetic] pulse shuts the machine off and suddenly we can't use it. What do we do?”

That alarming scenario is a few years off, but schools are already struggling with how to approach essays now that students can get a chatbot to write a paper with a few words of instruction.

“The problem is the brain's a muscle, you have to use it,” Cooper says, “you have to teach it and consistently use it to critically think, or you will lose that ability to do that. And if we suddenly offboard every piece of critical thinking to a machine, where do we critically think and how do we do it? Are we simply then just essentially people seeking pleasure? 

“That to me is a much bigger problem, that you have multiple generations coming up without learning how to write, without learning how to think because the thinking is all being done by the computer.”

What’s the best that could happen?

Inspired by art history, instead of sci-fi, Mastai offers a more encouraging view.

“Look, this is maybe the Pollyanna techno-optimist version of me, which is always at war with the techno-dystopian cynic in me,” he begins.

“When photography landed on the scene at the end of the 19th century suddenly portrait painting, all those brilliant, nuanced, detailed portrait painters were out of business because, sure, wealthy people might hire a portrait painter, but the average person is just going to go and get their picture taken and photography's going to destroy painting.

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Elan Mastai (Photo credit: David Leyes)

“Well sure, but it didn't destroy painting. It gave us abstract expressionism, cubism and surrealism. Artists said, okay, well, hyper-accurate realistic representation is no longer strictly necessary for a painter. What else can I do?”

Mastai hopes he’d respond to chatbot screenwriters the same way, asking how he can stay one step ahead of the technology that seeks to make him irrelevant.

Who’s putting up the guardrails?

There is little policing of companies rushing to get advanced generative AI to market. Governments, courts, and industry are all trying to catch up.

The Writers Guild of Canada (WGC) has yet to take a formal position on the use of AI in screenwriting but its president, Alex Levine, says his group is studying the issue as it develops.

“There are implications with respect to copyright ownership, standard terms in typical screenwriting contracts, and the impacts and ethics of the use of AI as a tool by WGC members and IPA [Independent Production Agreement] signatory producers. Lots to consider,” Levine says. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) is deliberating many of the same issues as it negotiates a new contract south of the border. 

“Overall, as you might expect, we strongly believe all members of society have a vested interest in ensuring human beings remain at the centre of all our artistic endeavours, screenwriting included,” Levine adds.

Cooper says some of those issues will be decided elsewhere. “The Writers Guild can say whatever they want, the courts are ultimately going to decide who owns what comes out of AI, and that's a whole other world and we're going to have to wait and see, because they're incredibly slow to get on that.” 

Since copyright is an international issue, Cooper adds, you might create a movie in one country and not be able to distribute it in another. This holds not only for chatbots but other forms of generative AI that create images and audio by scraping existing works. “So, it’s a mess.”

Ai Generates An Image For Human, Person Types A Prompt For Artificial Intelligence Bot To Generate Artwork, Vector Illustration

How will audiences relate to AI-generated material?

A question often lost in the analysis is, will audiences embrace a work they know was written with substantial help from AI?

Cooper thinks there’s an intangible magic human writers bring to a project and audiences would have a tough time connecting to AI-generated work in the same way.

“[Viewers] want to believe a work is unique and one of a kind and coming from a person's soul,” he says. “The same thing when you buy a piece of art, you want some validation that that is the original, that is the thing the artist painted and not some knockoff, some cheaper print of it,” he says.

Asked whether he would have a harder time connecting with content he knew was written by AI Mastai says, “Absolutely.” 

“But I acknowledge that might be a generational sensibility,” he continues, “and a kid right now who grows up with AI-generated material may not feel the same way in 20 years.”

Marni Weisz
Marni Weisz is a Toronto-based writer and editor with a passion for movies, TV, comedy, and travel. For more than 20 years she served as Editor in Chief of Cineplex Magazine, where she interviewed fancy folk like Jennifer Lawrence, Mark Hamill, Margot Robbie, Keanu Reeves, Kumail Nanjiani, Donald Sutherland, and Tom Cruise. Her favourite question is, “When are you happiest?”
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