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Writers respond to Marc Andreessen’s AI optimism with their own manifesto: ‘It’s mostly nonsense’

Ted Chiang at GeekWire Summit on AI
Science-fiction writer Ted Chiang, whose work inspired the movie “Arrival,” speaks at the 2023 GeekWire Summit in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

How will “The Techno-Optimist Manifesto,” venture capitalist Marc Andreessen’s paean to economic growth and artificial intelligence, play to a wider audience? The reviews are in from two award-winning writers who are familiar with the impact of generative AI on creative professions.

“I think it’s mostly nonsense,” science-fiction writer Ted Chiang said Thursday at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle.

Chiang, a longtime Seattle-area resident, is best-known as the author of “Story of Your Life,” the novella that was adapted for the Oscar-nominated 2016 movie “Arrival.” But he’s also won acclaim as a commentator on AI’s effects for The New Yorker and other publications. Last month, Time magazine included Chiang among the 100 most influential people in AI.

The other writer on the SIFF Cinema stage was Eric Heisserer, the screenwriter who turned Chiang’s story into the script for “Arrival.” Heisserer witnessed the debate over generative AI and the future of work up close as a member of the negotiating committee for the Writers Guild of America during its recent strike against Hollywood studios.

Both Chiang and Heisserer say AI is too often unjustly portrayed as a high-tech panacea. That claim came through loud and clear in Andreessen’s manifesto, which called AI a “universal problem solver.”

“Technology can solve certain problems, but I think the biggest problems that we face are not problems that have technological solutions,” Chiang said in response. “Climate change probably does not have a technological solution. Wealth inequality does not have a technological solution. Most of these are problems of political will. … And so Marc Andreessen’s manifesto is a prime example of ignoring all of these other realities.”

Chiang took issue with Andreessen’s view that growth is always good. “Growth is untenable on a finite planet, so at some point, we are going to have to think about some alternative to a growth economy, some kind of stable state, because the laws of physics are going to put a stop to growth at some point,” he said.

He also called attention to Andreessen’s track record as a tech commentator. “He was all in on crypto,” Chiang said. “He is all in on the metaverse. Anyone who was so enthusiastic about those things … I think we need to keep that in mind when gauging their credibility about anything they recommend now.”

Heisserer, Chiang and Boyle at SIFF Cinema talking about AI for 2023 GeekWire Summit
Screenwriter Eric Heisserer, sci-fi writer Ted Chiang and GeekWire’s Alan Boyle talk about AI at the GeekWire Summit. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

This summer’s 146-day Writers Guild strike — and a parallel strike by SAG-AFTRA actors, which is continuing with no quick settlement in sight — represent two of the first labor skirmishes over the impact of generative AI on creative professions.

The agreement that eventually emerged from the Writers Guild’s talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers includes assurances that AI-generated material wouldn’t be used to undermine a writer’s credit or separated rights. Writers can use AI if a company consents, but a company can’t require a writer to use AI software.

Heisserer said the behind-the-scenes story of the negotiations probably wouldn’t make a great movie script. “It’s far more boring than a science-fiction movie,” he joked. But the contract could help writers head off a potential AI apocalypse in the years to come.

“We said, ‘Let’s not rush to put thousands and thousands of people out of work before we know that something can actually improve productivity,'” Heisserer said. “It wasn’t a case of [being] worried that AI is going to take our jobs. We were worried that a very over-enthusiastic MBA would want to do that, and use AI as an excuse.”

Heisserer said that striking actors share some of the concerns that writers had, plus additional concerns. For example, actors worry that digital scans of their bodies may be used to create AI-generated shows without consent or compensation. He recalled one anecdote that was passed along from the SAG-AFTRA negotiations.

“I don’t know if this was the key reason why SAG-AFTRA chose to go on strike, but I do know that it was a very dangerous moment in negotiations … when a business executive of Disney explained the terms of their proposal to the SAG negotiating committee that said, ‘We will agree to consent and compensation for actors to use your likeness as a digital double on our projects. However, if the actor is dead, we own their digital rights in perpetuity,'” Heisserer recalled.

So what’s a techie to do when it comes to applying AI? Both Chiang and Heisserer said the first step should be to determine whether the capabilities of AI — or any other technology, for that matter — are suited to the challenge you’re addressing.

“Is this a problem that technology can or even should solve? Or is there something else to it? What is the motive?” Heisserer asked. “And if you should find yourself incredibly wealthy for something like this, try to avoid the trend of billionaires that turned into Futurama villains.”

For further reading, Chiang recommends David Karpf’s commentary on “The Techno-Optimist Manifesto.” Chiang will participate in a conversation with Emily Bender, a linguistics professor at the University of Washington, at Town Hall Seattle on Nov. 10. The event, focusing on the nature of creativity and rising concerns about AI-generated storytelling, is a fundraiser for Clarion West. “Jeopardy” champion Tom Nissley, the owner of Phinney Books, will be the moderator.

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