ChatGPT, the rise of AI, and writing about film

AI writing 2001 A Space Odyssey
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Software like ChatGPT can churn out hundreds of words in seconds. So what does AI mean for writers and writing? Ryan has a few thoughts.

In the midst of a turbulent year, AI has proven to be one of those topics that has constantly floated back into online conversation – to such an extent that Collins dictionary made ‘AI’ its word of 2023. For context, previous Collins word of the year winners have included Permacrisis (2022), NFT (2021) and Lockdown (2020). You can see how each of those words encapsulates what was happening in each particular year.

It’s now becoming increasingly clear that machine learning and large language models are going to affect society in all kinds of ways, both foreseeable and otherwise. Within the past few months alone, we’ve seen how the technology can be used to generate complex images by typing in a handful of words, or how it can write songs in the style of famous musicians.

There has been news of late actor Jimmy Stewart’s voice being used – via AI speech synthesis – to tell calming bedtime stories. An authorised animated biopic about the singer Edith Piaf is in the works, which will use an AI-generated version of Piaf’s voice to “uncover aspects of her life that were previously unknown.”

Much of Hollywood ground to a halt this year due to writers’ and actors’ strikes that were in part triggered by fears of how AI might be used in ways that would leave creatives out of a job – by digitally recreating an actor’s likeness, say, or using a large language model to rewrite a screenplay.

It isn’t easy to illustrate an article about AI and writing, so here’s a still from 1981’s Looker, directed by Michael Crichton. It’s quite good and you should watch it. Credit: Warner Bros.

This year has also begun to see AI make its presence felt in the realm of online writing.

In June, the US media firm Gamurs Group published an advertisement for the role of AI editor. The post was quickly deleted, but it provided an insight into what the not-so-brave new world of AI-powered online writing might look like. The successful candidate would have been asked to generate “200 to 250 articles per week”, presumably using a tool like ChatGPT.

Doing a quick bit of maths, this meant that Gamurs Group – the owner of such sites as The Escapist, Siliconera and Destructoid – expected the AI editor to create a post every 12 minutes. That’s an epic churn rate, even if you assume that ChatGPT would do much of the writing on their behalf; the worker would still need to fact check, source an image, add links, and do all the other back-end stuff that a post requires.

Again, that job listing was swiftly taken down – perhaps because of the widespread derision that greeted it on social media.

All the same, it suggests a direction of travel in certain sections of the media. Elsewhere this year, we’ve seen the veteran outlet Sports Illustrated accused of publishing articles written by AI; CNET, a well-known online tech website, was also discovered to have published AI-written news stories that were riddled with errors.

In many instances, the companies behind these outlets have apologised, corrected or removed posts, or in Sports Illustrated’s case, even fired its CEO, Ross Levinson.

Elsewhere on the web, though, the use of AI in the day-to-day running of websites appears to be growing. There are numerous sites that appear to be dedicated to cloning posts from other outlets – right down to the links and pictures – using AI to lightly transliterate certain words, and using them to garner their own traffic. Take a look at this Film Stories post, about the upcoming Taskmaster VR game, for example, and this one, which is almost identical.

Look, you can’t tell us that ChatGPT won’t lead to something like this emerging at some point. Credit: StudioCanal.

There’s one British entertainment website, meanwhile, which we won’t name here, that appears to regularly use AI to generate its articles. Even without a tool like GPTZero (which says there’s “a 99% possibility that this text was entirely written by AI” on numerous posts we sampled), it’s easy to spot that the paragraphs weren’t written by a human. There’s the over-abundance of cliches (“Gosling’s initial casting brought a certain level of expectation and star power to the project”), sweeping generalisations (“The film’s release in 2024 is highly anticipated by fans and critics alike”) and a general air of scrubbed-up, clinical blandness.

The same site’s obituary to the much-loved actor Matthew Perry also appears to have been written using ChatGPT or similar. It’s the thought that counts, we guess.

As the year of AI draws to a close, then, maybe it’s a good time to ask: who benefits from its rise, particularly when it comes to journalism and writing?

On the strength of the output seen so far, it certainly isn’t the reader, who can expect to be confronted with the most boring paragraphs imaginable at best or outright misinformation at worst. Nor is it the writer, given that publishers will clearly expect bloggers and journalists to use AI to produce more content at a greater speed – or worse, have those flesh-and-blood humans, with their irksome colds and loo breaks, replaced almost entirely by software.

Ironically, publishers themselves are unlikely to benefit in the long term. Even as websites frantically contort and adapt to the whims of Google, the search giant is itself using AI to provide its users with the information they’re seeking while also starving websites of the clicks they need to survive.

Did you know that WarGames premiered at Cannes in 1983? Well it did. Credit: MGM.

Type a question into Google – how long to boil an egg, where can you watch 1980s TV drama Tenko – and it’ll provide an answer right at the top of the results page. It’s a move that has and will continue to have a far reaching impact on websites of all kinds, as the SEO tricks and techniques that once helped publishers fund their outlets no longer work.

Guides and walkthroughs for videogames, for example, have long provided a bedrock of traffic for websites dedicated to the hobby; thanks to Google’s decision to show often lengthy, AI-generated answers in its search results, the potential traffic from guides is set to fall to damagingly low levels.

Put all of this together, and you have an unprecedented and quite scary new era unfolding for publishing. It’s little wonder that so many companies are running for the hills, with some outlets laying off writers and others selling entire portfolios of websites.

Not that it’s all bad news.

In an excellent post on Substack, Ian Betteridge argues that there is still a way forward for publishers – by focusing more on encouraging returning readers with in-depth articles and pieces written with personality. By spending less time on appeasing the gods of Google, and more on building traffic via other avenues, such as newsletters.

Most significantly, Betteridge suggests that using AI-generated content to boost traffic will only fail in the long run: “What publishers have in their favour is human talent, creativity and expertise,” he writes.

Okay, we’re getting a bit desperate now. Here’s a still from Demon Seed, a 1977 film in which Robert Vaughn provides the voice of the scary AI computer, Proteus IV. Julie Christie stars as its petrified hostage. Credit: MGM.

There is another problem with using AI to churn out articles, too. Researchers have warned of something called ‘model collapse’, in which large language models fed on their own output begin to spit out an increasing number of factual errors. Much like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, the quality of the end product decreases over time – and there are signs that this model collapse has already begun.

As professor Ross Anderson memorably put it a few months ago, firms are “about to fill the internet with blah.”

As uncertain as the future currently seems, then, there are still glimmers of hope if you know where to look. The drawbacks of using AI to churn out bland, cookie-cutter posts are already clear, but as they continue to proliferate, the difference between them and the best writing written by humans will only grow more stark.

Ultimately, writing – whether it’s about films, gardening or painting tiny Warhammer figurines – is about communicating an emotion or a message of some sort.

As long as we keep gravitating towards work written with style and passion, the machines that conspire to “fill the internet with blah” will never win.

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