How to Preserve a Union From Human Greed and AI Technology | PRO Insight

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Matthew Modine, veteran actor and SAG-AFTRA national board member, explains why artificial intelligence endangers all laborers

matthew modine strike sag-aftra AI
Matthew Modine writes about the threat of AI to labor. (Getty, Christopher Smith/TheWrap)

“It appears that there exists a singular ultimate goal for humanity, a distant objective towards which all individuals strive. It has been referred to by various authors as self-actualization, self-realization, integration, psychological health, individuation, autonomy, creativity, productivity. However, they all converge on the idea of realizing one’s potential, of becoming fully human and embracing everything that person can be.” ― Abraham Maslow

Abraham Maslow, a psychologist, advocated for focusing on people’s positive qualities rather than reducing them to a mere “bagful of symptoms.” At this moment, tens of thousands of my fellow entertainment industry unionists are being looked upon by our employers as nothing more than a collection of symptoms — and this is one of the reasons we are on strike. 

On July 16, 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer, after witnessing the first test of the atomic bomb he helped create, is reported to have quoted the Bhagavad Gita saying: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” 

Today, Artificial Intelligence is rapidly reshaping human activity and evoking genuine fears of human annihilation caused by its mere existence. Just discussing AI’s potential generates palpable unease and anxiety. Drawing a parallel between the atomic bomb and AI is not an overstatement. It’s fair to say both mark significant milestones in human technological advancement and serve as indelible dividing lines in history. If an atomic bomb is a destroyer of life, what potential does AI hold for the future?

Goldman Sachs predicts that if AI lives up to expectations, it will upend the workforce in the United States and Europe, potentially leading to the loss of 300 million jobs. The question then arises: How will these 300 million individuals sustain themselves and their families?

In 1811, a group of English textile workers known as Luddites took a stand against the use of “cost-saving machinery” that was replacing their jobs. The manufacturers who employed this type of early AI justified their use and promised that the savings from the use of the machines would be passed down to consumers. They weren’t. Just as the AMPTP employing AI to eliminate background performers or write scripts will not result in any reduced costs for movie tickets or streaming services. As the Goldman Sachs report emphasized, the threat AI poses to humanity is not an exaggeration.

As AI technology grows, it will empower some, and come at the expense of many others. AI will further consolidate power into the hands of the already powerful. AI is already employed to shape our decision-making processes, manipulate economies, aid in governance, monitor and manipulate our behavior and guide us on our journeys.

The ongoing negotiations between the AMPTP, WGA and SAG-AFTRA exemplify the proverbial “canary in a coal mine” metaphor. The outcome of these negotiations reaches far beyond the entertainment industry and should be watched closely and by every worker whose livelihood could be lost to AI. 

To close this chasm, it’s essential for the folks on both sides of the negotiating table to look across and see our shared humanity and purpose. Not as a “bag of symptoms” but as people. If the negotiations are met with kindness, fairness and benevolence, these new emerging technologies could be shaped to benefit both sides and not deepen divisions. 

Above all, advancing new technologies is a hallmark of the entertainment industry. It has employed new technology since the onset of filmmaking, from black and white to color film, analog to digital cameras, silent movies to “talkies,” VHS to DVDs, antennas to cable. The entertainment industry should embrace AI, but only if it aligns with human values that serve the shared interests of all humanity. We mustn’t succumb to a fear of AI technology but employ it to create not yet imagined art. As AI develops, we must also remain cautious of those who control it. And here enters the art of ethics. 

Ethics is an indispensable component of modern society — a set of moral principles guiding our behavior. Ethical behavior compels us to reflect upon others and consider our obligations to future generations. This strike presets the opportunity to ethically examine the hidden dangers and possibilities presented by AI technology and how to adopt a long-term perspective.

The AMPTP may argue, “But what is ethically fair?” To answer this, we must first define fairness, recognizing that the concept varies among individuals. What may seem fair to a wealthy person would vastly differ from a person struggling to buy groceries. Moral principles and human kindness should be intrinsic and pervasive within us. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Hence, it remains necessary for workers to organize and form unions, defining and ensuring fairness and safe working conditions which employers uphold.

I’ve had a long and successful career in my chosen profession. Good fortune has given me a privileged perspective in life and within the entertainment business. As a labor union member, my membership card is not larger, nor more powerful, than the newest member of my union. This is as it should be and it’s what makes a union a union. It’s what gives a union cohesion and esprit de corps. 

I stand in solidarity with the writers who create the written material that brings the diverse members of my union together to depict intricate, humorous, dramatic and entertaining characters in stories which are often inspired by the writers own life experiences. 

Artificial Intelligence, which the AMPTP desires to employ to replace WGA writers, is devoid of human essence and will only produce synthetic derivatives of human life, plagiarized from previous scripts and novels. AI scripts will always be artificial narratives extracted from living, breathing human souls. 

If I were present in that negotiating room, I’d wish for more than a financial expert or a lawyer to be at my side. I’d obtain an expert who understands human society. I’d bring along someone who understands the intricacies of the human mind and its functioning. I would bring along another person capable of negotiating by unraveling the fundamental nature of human knowledge, reality, and communal existence. Additionally, I would enlist someone who could help both sides appreciate how the decisions being made today will be remembered and recorded tomorrow because, as the saying goes, we plant trees for our grandchildren, knowing full well that we won’t be alive to enjoy the shade they’ll provide.

I’d bring those people along so that both sides can see the humanity in the individuals sitting across from them. The fact is, we’re not enemies, and this is by no means a war. The wonderful world of entertainment thrives on and exists only with and through thoughtful negotiations. If you want proof, read the names of all the people during the end credits of any production. 

With the exception of when and how money is divided and shared, equity and inclusion are valued and prized principles within the entertainment industry. I believe if everyone negotiating understood and shook hands with the fact that they’re eventually going to die, and none of us get to take our money with us when we do, this strike would be over. I mean, c’mon. Let’s be fair and equitable, and all get back to doing what we love. 

Abraham Maslow also wrote, “What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself.”

Just as we need to bring the AMPTP, WGA and SAG-AFTRA together, we need businesses, governments and communities to unite in harnessing AI’s power while also regulating its potential to disrupt and destroy. How we do that when other countries won’t self-regulate is a question that must be answered because we don’t want to end up like the poor Luddites. 

The fact is, the AI technology that the AMPTP is advocating for isn’t inherently evil, but it has the potential to be — if it is used for nefarious purposes. Currently, AI technology cannot exist without human invitation or permission. However, AI is rapidly accelerating towards the development of “artificial general intelligence” (AGI). Once AGI emerges, AI will possess the ability to improve itself without human intervention. And that’s when its true impact will be felt… and when that happens… ka-boom. 

Matthew Modine is an acclaimed actor who has worked with many of the film industry’s most respected directors, including Oliver Stone, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Spike Lee, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles and Christopher Nolan. His film and television credits include “Oppenheimer,” “Stranger Things,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Short Cuts,” “Birdy,” “Full Metal Jacket,” “Married to the Mob” and “Any Given Sunday,” plus forthcoming films “The Martini Shot” and “Retribution.” Modine is the recipient of a Golden Globe Award, Venice Film Festival Volpi Cup, Golden Lion. A SAG-AFTRA National Board member, Modine campaigned for the position of president during the past two union elections.

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