Straight from Black Mirror: striking Hollywood actors fight digital doubles

Just like script writers, thousands of Hollywood actors, now also on strike in the US, have expressed worry over alleged plans to replace them with digital replicas created with the help of AI technology.

Someone at the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) has clearly watched Joan is Awful, a new Black Mirror episode on Netflix where Streamberry, a fictional streaming app, uses AI deep fakes of Hollywood stars to produce shows on the cheap.

In the episode, celebrities sign a user agreement allowing Streamberry to use digital likenesses of them in any way it pleases. Obviously, this causes a lot of confusion and provokes musings that the show’s creator Charlie Brooker is actually criticizing Netflix.

Well, so is the SAG-AFTRA. The union, which is representing the actors who are now on strike, says that the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (the AMPTP, or simply the studios) wants to use AI and exploit actors.

To be fair, the alleged proposal by the studios only concerns background actors whose names and faces aren’t instantly recognizable. But the union is concerned nevertheless and says it’s a worrying sign of what the future might hold.

In last week’s press conference announcing the union's intention to strike against the AMPTP, SAG-AFTRA's national executive director and chief negotiator, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, said: "Actors now face an existential threat to their livelihoods from the use of AI and generative technology.”

“They proposed that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get one day’s pay, and their companies should own that scan, their image, their likeness, and should be able to use it for the rest of eternity on any project they want, with no consent and no compensation,” added Crabtree-Ireland.

In an update on Monday, the SAG-AFTRA’s Negotiating Committee wrote that the studios also want to make changes to performers’ dialogue and even create new scenes – again, without consent. The use of someone’s images and likenesses to train new generative AI systems is another worry.

According to Reuters, the AMPTP says that the SAG-AFTRA's claims are false. It said the current proposal would restrict the use of the digital replica to the motion picture for which the background actor is employed. Any other use would require the actor’s consent and bargaining for the use, subject to a minimum payment, the studios said.

The use of AI in the film industry is also among concerns mentioned by the also-striking Writers Guild of America. It wants to ban AI from writing or rewriting literary material.

SAG-AFTRA is Hollywood's largest union, representing 160,000 members, including actors, stunt performers, and voiceover artists.

Film productions have long used computer-generated imagery and other technologies to create scenes that require thousands of extras – it’s just cheaper. They can also legally use digital scans of lead actors to insert them in scenes that they weren't present in after a production wraps.

But the issue for actors is ownership. If their digital likenesses belonged to the studios, this could undermine both their pay and ability to control their careers and exposure.