Actors fear that AI will take center stage
We used to think artificial intelligence would come first for the bean counters. It seemed reasonable to assume that AI would transform or even eliminate jobs in sectors like accounting and insurance, while leaving jobs associated with human traits like creativity relatively untouched. But this theory looks weaker by the day. One group of workers who are really concerned about AI are actors and other performance artists.
A survey this year by Equity, the UK union for actors and other performing arts workers, found that 65 per cent of members thought AI posed a threat to employment opportunities in the industry, which translates to 93 per cent for audio artists. It wasn’t just an amorphous fear of the future: more than a third of the members had seen job offers for work with AI and almost a fifth had taken on some part of this work.
A number of AI startups are developing tools for use in film and audio, from rejuvenating actors to creating AI voices that can be used for marketing campaigns, consumer assistants, or even audiobook narration. Audio is such a popular medium today that businesses need a lot of it, but human actors are expensive and not nearly as flexible as an AI voice that can say anything at the touch of a button. These companies typically hire actors to provide hours of audio that can then be converted into voice.
For example, VocaliD offers a range of voices such as “Malik” (“warm, soothing, urban”), “Terri” (“literate, upbeat, sophisticated”), and “AI Very British Voice” (“trustworthy, warm, calm.”) Sonantic, another AI company just acquired by Spotify, creates voices that can laugh, scream, or cry. His voices are often used by video game companies in the production process so they can play around with different scripts.
They’re not as good as humans, but they don’t have to be either. Industry experts say no one will use AI to narrate the audiobook of a bestselling novel, but there’s still a market to be tapped in the large number of lesser-known books that are published or self-published each year. Audiobook.ai, for example, says it can create an audiobook in 10 minutes with 146 voices to choose from in 43 languages.
Voice actors aren’t just worried about losing work to these synthetic singers. They also worry about their rights when helping to create AI personas. Both Equity and SAG-AFTRA, its US equivalent, say they see contracts for AI work giving tech companies the right to use an actor’s likeness or voice irrevocably and in perpetuity. Confidentiality agreements are also common. Young actors in particular might be tempted by paying upfront, only to regret the long-term effects.
What implications? Once your voice or face is out in the wild and you have no control over it, you may find that once you’ve decided to pursue a career in children’s films, there’s something violent about it. Or you may find that your counterpart is working for a competitor of a company you are now interested in joining. As Equity explains in its guide for members doing AI-related work: “If you are later asked to work for another client on an exclusive basis, having your AI voice and being able to use it for Competitor works, contractually problematic?”
Equity is urging the UK government to update copyright law to ensure performers have the right to control AI-made “reproductions” of performances. Unions on both sides of the Atlantic are also trying to strike deals with tech companies that will grant performers royalties if their AI voice or image is used, as well as the right to authorize use in any new scenario. Some companies are already doing this: Sonantic says it has a profit-sharing agreement with voice actors, for example.
There are both opportunities and dangers. With decent contract arrangements, it could be very helpful for actors to have a source of passive income from the AI version of themselves out there doing diligent work that might be boring but still brings in some money. AI also opens up the possibility of more flexible work for people who cannot always be on set for health or family reasons.
But the broader lesson for the workforce is that AI doesn’t have to be “as good as humans” to disrupt things for ordinary workers. In Hollywood, as in the economy at large, the superstars will be fine – everyone else needs to stay on their toes.
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