Actors fear AI will take center stage

We used to think that artificial intelligence would come first for bean counters. It seemed reasonable to assume that AI would transform or even eliminate jobs in industries such as accounting and insurance, while work associated with human traits such as creativity would be relatively untouched. But this theory seems more fragile day by day. One group of workers who are really starting to worry about AI are actors and other performance artists.

A survey this year by Equity, the UK trade union for actors and other performing arts workers, found that 65% of members believed AI posed a threat to job opportunities in the sector, rising to 93% of audio artists. It wasn’t just amorphous fear about the future: more than a third of members had seen job postings for work involving AI and nearly a fifth had taken on some this work.

A range of AI start-ups 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 now that businesses need a lot of it, but human actors are expensive and nowhere near as flexible as an AI voice, which can say anything at the press of a button. These companies typically hire actors to provide hours of audio that can then be turned into voice for hire.

VocaliD, for example, offers a range of voices such as “Malik” (“warm, soothing, urban”) “Terri” (“educated, upbeat, sophisticated”) and “AI Very British Voice” (“trustworthy, warm , quiet”.) Sonantic, another artificial intelligence company that was just acquired by Spotify, creates voices that can laugh, scream or cry. Its voices are often used by video game companies in the production process so they can play with different scripts.

They’re not as good as humans, but they don’t need to be. Industry experts say no one will use AI to narrate the audiobook of a bestselling novel, but there’s still a market to tap into in the vast number of lower-profile books that are being published or self-published. every 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 don’t just worry about losing work to these synthetic vocalists. They also worry about their rights when helping to create AI characters. Equity and SAG-AFTRA, its US equivalent, say they see contracts for AI work that give tech companies the right to use an actor’s likeness or voice irrevocably in perpetuity. Non-disclosure agreements are also common. Younger actors, in particular, might be tempted by the upfront fee only to regret the long-term implications.

What kind of implications? Once your voice or face is wild and you have no control over it, you might find it associated with something violent when you had your heart set on a career in children’s films. Or you might discover that your likeness works for a competitor of a company you now wish to join. As Equity explains in its advice to members doing AI-related work: “If you are subsequently asked to work exclusively for another client, the presence of your AI voice and the possibility that it works for competitors would they be problematic contractually?

Equity is calling on 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 give artists royalties when their AI voice or image is used, as well as the right to approve its use in every new storyline. . Some companies are already doing this: Sonantic says it has a profit-sharing agreement with voice actors, for example.

There are opportunities but also threats. With decent contractual agreements in place, it could be very useful for actors to have a source of passive income from the AI ​​version of themselves, which diligently does work that can be boring but pays off when even money. AI also opens up the possibility of more flexible work for people who cannot always be on set, whether for health or family reasons.

That said, the broader lesson for the world of work is that AI doesn’t have to be “as good as humans” to start disrupting things for ordinary workers. In Hollywood, as in the economy as a whole, superstars will be fine – everyone will need to be on their toes.

sarah.oconnor@ft.com

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