AI has been seeping into our lives, stronger and stronger, despite growing concerns about its use and application. Are there good reasons to worry or is this just another moral panic brought on by the predictable advancement of technology? It depends on who you ask, something I found out when I began speaking with some professors at Ithaca College about the subject.
AI, as it relates to filmmaking, has been a hot topic recently with demands about AI limitations being an important aspect of the recent Writers Guild of America (WGA) and Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) strikes. Here at IC, the conversation differs. I interviewed two professors who teach writing for film, TV, and emerging media, and a professor who teaches politics. I saw a common theme strike out in all these interviews when I asked teachers about their policies relating to AI.
Dr. Figueroa, an associate politics professor at Ithaca College, says that he hopes to build a policy of honesty with his students surrounding the use of AI on assignments. He recognizes, as do other professors, that AI can be helpful for generating ideas and polishing a piece of writing. But he does not allow the use of it for final assignments. His reasoning stems from not wanting to see whether AI has a command of the content learned in the course. Rather, he would like to know if his students have understood and mastered what has been taught.
Here, a distinction is made that I noticed in my other interviews, as well. If the objective of an assignment is simply for a student to communicate their thoughts or ideas, AI can be a useful tool for synthesizing and presenting those ideas. However, if a student is being asked to write for the sake of writing, then AI is really a form of cheating. After all, if the assignment is to write and a student did not actually write anything, then they are missing out on the benefits of the work.
But AI can be helpful too. There is a huge question of accessibility within higher education that is often left unanswered. Academia functions in a way that can be extremely limiting to students with different backgrounds or disabilities, whether it is professors who are uninterested in providing ample in-class accommodations, or schools who make the process of acquiring those accommodations almost impossible. In this context, it is easy to see AI as a tool for success. AI that assists students with grammar, sentence structure, and syntax could make writing and ideas heard that would otherwise be scrapped because of their less-than-polished formats. And in this way, AI may be a foot in the door for students who would normally be cast aside.
The discussion around AI completely changes when you consider the effects it could have on the filmmaking industry. Where AI could increase accessibility in academia, it also has the potential to effectively replace the workforce of writers behind film production. There is a lot of rhetoric surrounding the WGA’s demands about AI, claiming that it does not have the capability to create screenplays. Unfortunately, this is not entirely true.
Nick Sagan, assistant professor of media arts, sciences, and studies at Ithaca College, pointed out the risk that AI poses to the critical thinking and writing skills that are currently so valuable in the industry.
“Increasingly, we can see the possibility of getting eerily skillful storytelling from machines,” warns Sagan.
Thinking about the jobs and livelihoods that could be destroyed by the invention of smarter and more applicable AI paints a horrid vision of the future. From the inception of the moving picture, there have been inventors and artists who flourished within the format. The most poignant example that comes to mind is George Méliès. He was an inventor and filmmaker who was responsible for the creation of over 400 films. Méliès was creating during the infancy of the film industry and was constantly building upon the format.
Even more interestingly, we only have a select few of the 400 films that George Méliès created. This is because he was being legally persecuted by Thomas Edison for the distribution of Méliès’ own films without credit to Edison. In response, Méliès burned all the copies of his creations. What we do have of Méliès’ work is astounding and shows a real knack for world-building that was not common in his time. It is a tragedy that because of historically litigious, money-hungry people like Thomas Edison, we can no longer see all that artists are capable of.
Though today we see filmmaking as a large corporate structure that is lorded over by production companies, artists like George Méliès still exist. Would it not be a tragedy if we allowed the desire for profit to destroy the lives and work of filmmakers today? This is where the industry is headed if we are not, as artists and filmmakers, extremely vigilant about how AI is incorporated into our work.
Jack Bryant, associate professor and program director of media arts, sciences, and studies at Ithaca College, points out, “Corporations seem eager to utilize AI to replace humans wherever possible, largely as a cost-saving mechanism.”
There are so many people who have made filmmaking, in some capacity, into a career. Those people put a lot of love and work into what they do, and they deserve to be fairly compensated for it. They certainly do not deserve to be replaced by AI, just because it is cheaper or frictionless.
Even if that were to happen, though, real art would never be replaced. If AI were to take over the commodified aspect of filmmaking, there would still be artists and writers who are burning to create. We create art for a lot of reasons; one of those is to communicate ideas and record the human experience in a meaningful and impactful way.
As Professor and CMPA Degree Program Director, Media Arts, Sciences, and Studies Cathy Crane elaborates, “[we’re] making […] contemplating [the] space between humans.” It is so important to remember that many artists and writers create because they must because some people are born with the imperative to build new worlds and tell stories. This world would be for nothing if we did not fight for the space to do what we are called to do.
As technology advances, it is key to constantly develop boundaries around its role within our lives. Of course, it should be explored what AI can do for accessibility, within and outside of academia. Technology created for the purpose of improving quality of life is an integral part of a forward-moving society. These same technologies are being implemented to automate art and steal careers to increase profits points toward a much more dismal future. Talking with my professors has shown me that there are an untold number of people who will not allow AI to rule the medium that they love so much. Storytelling and, in turn, filmmaking will remain in the hands of those who created it.
Gabe Hendershot is a first-year film, photography & visual arts major with a distinguished interest in the ethics of AI. You can reach Gabe at [email protected].