The Writers’ Guild of America East and West, the twin unions that represent film and television writers in the US, are on strike, their talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers not yielding a mutually acceptable compromise. While low pay is the main source of pain, one issue gaining a lot of attention is the demand to curb the use in film and television of material created by artificial intelligence (AI).
While AI chatbots that can churn out dialogue, once provided with a storyline, are a definite threat to incumbent writers, AI can be a major source of audience expansion for Indian film, television, and gaming. AI might well spoil the game for American film writers but it is going to light up the prospects for India’s creative arts.
Screenwriters make good money when they write up a major hit. But no one can keep writing hits all through their career. So, their most regular, dependable income is from what is termed residuals — the payment for re-runs and use of the content on flights, etc. Writers who have delivered a hit in the past, never mind how deep in the past that it was, used to make a decent living from residuals.
This traditional model has been blown up by the advent of streaming. Streaming has no reruns; movies and shows to which they have bought the rights join the long tail of content that the platform does not drop altogether and is available for audiences who want to watch them long after their original release and celebrity.
Streaming platforms procure content from around the world, and that reduces the amount of work for American writers. The Writers’ Guild has been complaining that shows hire fewer and fewer workers, reducing work opportunities for writers. The arrival of generative artificial intelligence, with chatbots that can write dialogue, given a storyline, threatens to shrink the writers’ work universe even further. Once an AI bot has produced the first draft of the conversations in a scene, a real person only needs to refine it, clean it of infelicitous expressions, and finalize it. That would take a fraction of the original labor.
India’s cultural geography
The impact of AI on Indian language content would be different. The worldwide success of the RRR movie song Naatu Naatu shows there is a market out there for Indian film and television, even in non-traditional markets.
The colonized mind of the modern Indian might not readily appreciate this, but India’s cultural geography spans the swathe of land from the Persian Gulf through Central Asia all the way to Indonesia. The Indian rupee had been the official currency in Qatar till 1974. The age-old two-way commerce between Ancient India and the Levant has been well-established by historians.
The Christian community of Kerala, whose lineage goes back to a time before Christianity had reached Rome, offers living testimony to this linkage between the two lands, to complement the mute testimony of Roman and Mesopotamian articles at Harappan sites in India and Indian artifacts wedged in the buried layers of history in the Middle East, such as the recently uncovered marble statue of the Buddha at Berenike on the Red Sea, believed to be part of the Roman empire’s trade with India.
The forays of Turkic rulers into the Indian subcontinent, some of whom established their rule in various parts of India, most notably the descendants of the Uzbek general Babur, have resulted in cultural osmosis between ancient Persia and the subcontinent.
The Hindu-Buddhist temple complex at Angkor Wat in northern Cambodia and the Ramayana plays in Indonesia (whose bravery awards hark back to Sanskrit), speak of India’s cultural salience in that part of the world the British called Indo-China.
How Artificial Intelligence can help
What really holds back the release of Indian movies and TV shows in the huge cultural landscape potentially receptive to Indian productions is the cost of subtitling/dubbing and marketing the output of India’s prolific film and TV industry that thrives in multiple languages. AI will make short work of this task.
Another huge opportunity is gaming, whose worldwide market is several times as large as that of movies. The Indian subcontinent’s myths and folklore contain a huge array of heroes, heroines, villains, horrific demons, mind-boggling magical powers, and enchanted plants and animals. They could potentially send the cast of today’s popular video games into dazzled, outclassed hiding. The tales of Vikramaditya and the Vetal are meant for gaming, as are the tales of Kerala’s heroes of Kalaripayattu.
Artificial intelligence can break down language barriers between Indian innovators in cultural production and their potential audiences around the world. Advances in telecommunications, such as 5G, would make the distribution of these works relatively easy, even from rural areas.
Artificial intelligence will have a very benign influence on India’s cultural production. We sympathize with America’s writers but would be loath to give in to an intellectual fashion that sees AI only as a threat.
The article was first published in The Federal Premium as Friend, not Foe: AI can give India’s creative arts a global push on May 03, 2023
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